Arkansas teen Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is watching his life slowly unravel. His fisherman father’s livelihood is drying up, mum is talking about divorce, and it’s looking like the state is going to raze the family home in an effort to modernise a moribund community. Even at the boy’s molasses-pace of living, the not-long-for-this-world unease is palpable. Ellis needs something to believe in, and this arrives as he and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover a charismatic loner-cum-father-figure named Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who mysteriously lives alone on a remote island along the river.

Writer-director Jeff Nichols once again aims for an incisive mix of allegory and verisimilitude that marked his two terrific prior features, Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011). His sense of place is still unparallelled – the harshness and the beauty of this economically depressed setting, where nondescript strip malls share close quarters with mythically swampy backwoods, is vividly rendered in gritty widescreen compositions that give the proceedings an appropriately
fable-esque air.

Despite the best efforts of a cast that mixes unstudied newbies such as Sheridan (who made his debut in 2011’s The Tree of Life) with Hollywood prima donnas like Reese Witherspoon (a starlet-slumming-it distraction as Mud’s dim-bulb inamorata), there’s an overall clunkiness that Nichols is unable to overcome. The filmmaker’s treatment of his adolescent protagonist’s growing pains is featherweight and derivative – a recurrent visual motif of a boat stuck in a tree is a rudderless symbol – while a guns-ablaze climax feels more like a half-baked The Night of the Hunter homage than the semi-rude awakening into adulthood that the story demands. This thematic callowness is unfortunately pervasive, a sad regression for an artist whose work to now has possessed a distinctive sophistication and maturity.

Review by Keith Uhlich

Dir Jeff Nichols Category IIA, 130 mins, opens on Thu Aug 15


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