It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
There's a place where the river opens up into the whole wide world. When you reach it, the horizon expands to infinity, and everything ahead looks impossibly big and uncharted. Jeff Nichols' "Mud," a Mississippi River coming-of-age story, takes place on that threshold, down in the delta where innocence and experience, the past and the future, all run together like dirt and water.
It starts off as a boy's adventure story, in the dark of a kid's bedroom. Equipped with a walkie-talkie and a flashlight, 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) sneaks out the window of a ramshackle house built on the water. On his way past the kitchen, he stops briefly to listen in on some curt and cryptic talk between his parents before heading out into the darkness, where he and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) navigate the winding waterways in a small outboard-powered skiff.
When they arrive at that natural gateway, we first see it reflected in their awestruck faces. Then we see the mighty river they're about to enter. Downstream there's a small island where they've spotted a tiny blue and white wooden cabin cruiser that floodwaters have lifted up into a tree. (You may remember the image from another river journey: Werner Herzog’s "Aguirre, the Wrath of God.") To them, it's a ready-made treehouse, but what they discover (along with a stash of Penthouse magazines, some cans of Van Camp's Beanee Weenee, a package of sliced bread and a few other provisions) is that somebody's already living there.
His name is Mud, and he embodies many connotations of that word: coarse, mucky, disreputable, opaque, unstable, common as dirt. Mud (Matthew McConaughey) beguiles the boys with colorfully embroidered origin-stories about his snake tattoo, his lucky shirt, the crosses on the heels of his seven-league boots and a long-ago bite from an Edenic serpent that almost killed him, right here on this very stretch of river. Most of these personal legends can be traced back to the one unshakable verity of his life: Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), his first and only true love since childhood.