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Friday, April 26, 2013

Today's Tom Sawyer: Southern drama 'Mud' evokes Mark Twain

COME SAIL AWAY WITH ME LAD: Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey and Jacob Lofland in Mud
  • Courtesy of Lionsgate
  • COME SAIL AWAY WITH ME, LAD: Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey and Jacob Lofland in 'Mud'
The Southern coming-of-age drama Mud doesn't so much introduce the title character as conjure him from the imagination of two adolescent boys. Ellis and his sidekick Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) live in a dying Arkansas river community and enjoy sneaking off to their favorite hideouts by skiff. At the beginning of Mud they visit a small island in the river and discover a boat hanging incongruously in a tree, like an image out of "Lost." They claim the boat as their own, but discover signs of habitation, like cans of Beanie Weenies and boot prints with cross-marks in them.

Only then do they notice the mysterious stranger (Matthew McConaughey) with a fishing pole in hand and a cigarette butt clamped in his teeth. He identifies himself as "Mud" and proves to be both a castaway and a fugitive from the law. Mud shares outlandish stories about how he killed a man to protect his lifelong sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and needs the tree-bound boat to make a clean getaway. While Neckbone remains suspicious of Mud, Ellis gets caught up in the older man's rural romanticism, and they agree to bring him provisions and tools to free the boat from the branches.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols uses the story to cunningly update the imagery of Mark Twain, whose tales of youthful adventure on the Mississippi provide a cornerstone of American literature. As with his previous film Take Shelter, Nichols shows an eye for telling detail, deliberate pace and careful narrative structure comparable to John Sayles, but also a tendency to belabor his points.

Ellis seems drawn to Mud partly as an escape from his fraught personal life, which includes his parents' (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) bitter arguments over whether they should abandon the meager riverside way of life for the greater opportunities in the otherwise dreary town. As Ellis becomes a messenger between Mud and Juniper, he becomes more deeply embroiled in a film noir-style storyline, with Mud hunted by a vengeful father (iconic Southern actor Joe Don Baker) and a seedy enforcer (Paul Sparks, in a change of pace from his role as a tittering bootlegger on "Boardwalk Empire").

Nichols pushes some of Mud's symbolism a little hard, particularly when venomous serpents are involved, disrupting the Eden-like quality of the island retreat. Arguably the film also presents three faces of Eve: as Mud unfolds from Ellis' point of view, we see women in three separate subplots (including the boy's potential girlfriend) reject the aspirations of their men. The female characters all come across as credible people who need to protect themselves, but overall get a short shrift in the story.

Following his cinematic hot streak with Magic Mike and Killer Joe, McConaughey uses Mud to add more dimensions to his tousled, laid-back screen persona. With shabby clothes and a chipped tooth, Mud tries to use his gift of gab to disguise haunted nature as a man whose dreams have fallen short of reality. When Mud and the boys tackle the engineering problem of removing a boat from a tree, or simply kick back to shoot the breeze, the three main characters seem to relish the reprieve from life's cares. In such moments Mud makes Southern life feel like an endless summer.

Mud. 3 stars. Directed by Jeff Nichols. Stars Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., April 26. At area theaters.

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