mudDir. Jeff Nichols
(2013, PG-13, 130 minutes)

Director Jeff Nichols previously helmed Take Shelter, one of my favorite films of 2011. His follow-up, Mud, is set in another rural community, but takes a much different point of view, showing life along the Mississippi river through the eyes of 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan, in an impressive breakthrough performance). He becomes involved in the life of the mysterious title character played by Matthew McConaughey, who has made better, more interesting career choices in the last two years than he had in the previous 15.

Ellis’s motives and desires are the film’s most compelling aspect. His parents are separating, which will force him from the house he’s lived in all his life, so when he meets Mud on a desolate island on the Mississippi and hears his story of lost love, Ellis intervenes, both because he is drawn to Mud’s isolation from the rules and constraints of the outside world and because Ellis wants to prove, if only to himself, that love is something that can be relied on. If he can repair Mud’s romance, perhaps Ellis can put his own family back together.

Themes of love, family, and obligation run throughout the film. Ellis’s best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) doesn’t have his parents and is being raised by his uncle (Michael Shannon). And Mud himself has a surrogate father of sorts in Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard). Meanwhile, Ellis navigates his first romance, which is its own emotional minefield for a teenage boy; between his parents, himself, and Mud, Ellis is testing the limits of love at every turn.

The specifics of Mud’s storyline are not quite as interesting. He’s in love with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and in defending her honor ran afoul of the law. There is also a group of criminals hunting him down, and while Ellis runs errands for him information is revealed bit by bit in passages of exposition. It’s possible Mud’s story could support the film on its own – though a violent climax seems like a better fit for Django Unchained than this film – but it’s the impression he leaves on Ellis that ultimately leaves an impression on us.