14 year old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) lives with his mum Mary Lee (Sarah Paulsen) and father “Senior” (Ray Mckinnon) by the River in Arkansas. Their ramshackle boat house providing easy access to scratch a living selling fish from the mighty Mississippi.
Ellis is free to roam the bye waters in his boat with his friend “Neckbone” (Jacob Lofland) who lives with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon). Galen keeps himself in beer by diving for oysters in the murky depths, when not loving the ladies to his favourite tunes or playing the guitar.
This is a tough, real life day to day type of existence, well away from the American lives you normally see on the big screen. It is a change to see people that are struggling, yet largely content and portrayed as loving their kids, caring about them as best they can and not turning to violence at a moments notice.
Stumbling across a boat stuck high up in the trees on a deserted island, the boys believe they have found their perfect hideout. After a while they realise they are not the first to find the boat. Notwithstanding all the possible avenues the story could take, horror or something sinister with the older man interacting with younger boys, the story takes none of the conventional routes.
Meeting “Mud” (McConaughey) we meet a perfectly formed complex character, conversing in the usual but even more pronounced southern drawl. Armed with a pistol and a strong independent survival instinct, he starts to rely or manipulate, dependant on your viewpoint, the boys to his main aim. Retaining or retrieving the love of his life “Juniper” (Reece Witherspoon) and ensuring her safety away from the forces of evil he perceives follows her.
To give too much away would spoil the film but fair to say, the story meanders and forks just like the Mississippi, ever present in the background. The delicate friendships and loyalties that are built and called into question, are all beautifully and believably portrayed.
Tye Sheridan is strong yet vulnerable, experiencing the pitfalls of young love and the upheavals of his home-life require him to trust someone, whether he makes the right choices remains to be seen. McConaughey is well cast and acquits himself well, with a thoughtful layered performance that goes well beyond the stereotypes you might expect. There is a sense of loss through the movie but it is never clear what has been left behind, the ending in particular is sensitively handled. Witherspoon does not get much screen-time but makes the most of the scenes she has, portraying a character one step up from trailer trash. However she remains a constant contradiction of smarts and foolishness wrapped within a superficially simple yet complicated persona.
Matthew McConaughey has recently rescued himself from recent Rom Com hell with a string of good performances in films that actually matter, his recent collaboration with Scorsese in “Wolf of Wall Street” is a good example. It is good to see his career resurrection and start to get noticed again for his obvious acting ability. Director and writer Jeff Nichol has coaxed excellent performances especially from his young cast, whilst placing them in a believable world of which most audiences have no previous experience
Complaints, the character played by Sam Shephard feels more like a plot convenience than reality and arguably Sheridan makes it hard for his co-star to shine when his performance is so strong and front and centre.
A hugely enjoyable film that perhaps defies comparisons and convention. With a story that has time to grow and confound, there are many pleasures to be had.
Like an updated Tom Sawyer novel about nothing and everything, this comes highly recommended.