Tye Sheridan (left) and Matthew McConaughey bond in Mud.
MUD (Jeff Nichols). 130 minutes. Opens Friday (May 17). For venues and times, see listings. Rating: NNN
After the Shakespearean conflict of Shotgun Stories and the apocalyptic rumblings of Take Shelter, the modest scale of Jeff Nichols's Mud comes as a surprise. It's a coming-of-age movie, a delicate, small drama about Ellis (Tye Sheridan), an Arkansas river kid who discovers a man hiding out on an island and decides to befriend him.
The man, who says to call him Mud, is played by Matthew McConaughey with just the tiniest bit of nervous energy underneath his friendly, chatty swagger. We know something's off, and so does Ellis's sidekick Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). But Ellis needs a father figure, so he decides to help Mud fix a wrecked boat and reach out to the frightened woman (Reese Witherspoon) Mud insists is waiting for him in town.
Nichols takes his time with the story as Ellis fumbles into a thicket of old wounds and new grudges, neither savvy nor mature enough to understand precisely what's going on. He'll learn, but it'll hurt.
Sheridan, who played the Terrence Malick surrogate in The Tree Of Life, is terrific at conveying adolescent confusion with tiny squints and frowns, and McConaughey plays off him masterfully. Nichols also makes excellent, economic use of Witherspoon, Joe Don Baker and Michael Shannon.
Mud only really stumbles at its climax, when the director abandons texture and complexity for an action sequence that feels like a backslide to Shotgun Stories. I suspect he had to include it in order to get the film made, but I really wish he'd found a way not to.