Indie director Jeff Nichols grew up in Arkansas, and he has milked that state’s ambience in his films: feuding brothers in “Shotgun Stories,” survivalist paranoia in “Take Shelter” and now life on a Mississippi delta houseboat in “Mud.” Nichols aims for that “Stand by Me” vibe of boyhood friends getting in over their heads with dodgy adult problems, and for the most part, he nails it.
Tye Sheridan (“Tree of Life”) plays 14-year-old Ellis, who explores a river island with his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) where they find an abandoned boat somehow wedged up in the treetops. Examining the boat, they find that someone else got there first: Mud (Matthew McConaughey) is some kind of bum/fugitive/loner who frightens the boys as much as he fascinates them. But when Ellis — whose parents are on the verge of splitting up — learns that Mud is looking for his old girlfriend, he sees one relationship he can put right, and agrees to help him. But there’s more to it than Mud is letting on.
McConaughey has plenty of haters, but he’s at his best here; like in “Magic Mike,” he shines when there’s a bit of sting in his tail, something a bit creepy behind the golden-boy charm. The supporting cast — Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon — all turn in little gems of performances, and it’s only a bit of a shame when the film takes a cliched Hollywood direction at the end.