Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter) continues his dissection of American rural areas, this time moving his focus to the Mississippi River around De Witt, Arkansas. Our protagonists are two industrious young teenage boys whose 1970s-ish wanderings and day expeditions in the areas surrounding their more or less mobile homes on and by the river one day make them stumble over a mysterious stranger (Matthew McConaughey) living in a boat stranded in a tree. The stranger, called Mud, needs help, and the boys jump at the opportunity for some action and the chance of ending up with the boat as a reward.
As with Nichols' first two features, Mud is a film about regular people with a below average amount of resources. What's different here, however, is that these people come from an anything but regular community; one where the extraordinary nature has become part of people's identity in a manner that most other western societies haven't seen in perhaps centuries. This environmental portrayal, along with the character portraits that accompany it, is Mud's strongest asset. This is where Nichols excels with his deep fascination for and understanding of the differences in peoples and cultures. Few filmmakers have been able to represent people's peculiarities as realistically as he has done in recent years.
When it comes to plot, Mud isn't quite as strong, and certainly not as remarkable as his previous two films. There's a somewhat too familiar mobster subplot and a romance at the heart of it which never attains the heights it could have. Although the character of Mud is both believable and interesting, his lengthy on-and-off relationship with Juniper (played with some flimsiness by the otherwise wonderful Reese Witherspoon) has a slight feel of plot construct to it. Mud's predicament therefore comes off as somewhat forced, even if the realization of it and the relationship between him and the boys is both poignant and often beautiful. This coupled with several other strong characters and relations, particularly that between Ellis and his father, overshadows the plot's shortcomings, however. Put differently, Nichols' skill as a director trumps his script here, and the result is a film full of Nichols' usual humanity, and with an extra dash of romanticism on top.