On a small island in a remote part of the Mississippi River in Arkansas, two 14-year-old boys — Ellis and Neckbone — are astonished to find a boat high in the trees (left by a flood) and a man named Mud living in it. The amiable Mud (Matthew McConaughey) spins the lads a number of tales about how and why he's hiding out on the island, and sufficiently charmed, the two agree to help him escape.
What follows is a slow-paced coming-of-age tale with elements of thriller, family melodrama and Dixie gothic, with a nod to the granddaddy of Mississippi adventures, Huckleberry Finn. The film is written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who scored an arthouse hit last year with his moody, paranoiac Take Shelter. But Mud is closer in vibe to his first film, Shotgun Stories.
Mud is meant to be meandering, but it does suffer from being overly long, and some of its subplots feel underdeveloped or clichéd. What's more effective are the scenes of Mud and his new acolytes: McConaughey works his new-and-improved career niche, playing another off-track scrambler whose laconic charm is undercut by something feral and creepy, and the two young actors have an easy chemistry with McConaughey and each other. (Jacob Lofland, as Neckbone, is especially good at conveying a disaffected but canny veneer.)
Like traveling on the Mississippi, Mud is a bit of a slow float, with too many port calls and noisy distractions, but there are also some interesting quieter moments along the way. Plus, a roster of good actors on board: Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon, and a cameo from Walking Tall's Joe Don Baker.