There hasn't been a coming-of-age adventure story like "Mud" since "Stand By Me" almost three decades ago. Though set in the present, "Mud" has that film's timeless quality, like a lived experience remembered with precision and powerfully felt.
It's about Ellis (Tye Sheridan), an Arkansas boy on the early side of adolescence who lives with his parents in a houseboat along the Mississippi. After school one day, he and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), paddle out to a small island, where they happen upon a most unusual sight: a boat stuck high up in the branches of a tree. It seems to be intact, and they begin remaking it into a treehouse, but Ellis quickly realizes that someone's already living in it.
That someone turns out to be an unkempt, vaguely menacing man who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and claims to be a fugitive from the law, wanted for killing a Texas scion who imposed himself physically on Mud's on-again, off-again soul mate, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud is desperately hungry, and offers the boys a deal: bring him food from the mainland, and he'll give them the tree-boat. (Later, when he needs the boat to effect his and Juniper's escape, he changes the terms: bring him a functioning outboard motor, and he'll give them his pistol). Neckbone's skeptical of Mud's story - and less trusting of his motives than is Ellis - but the boys agree to help him out, mostly out of an itch for excitement.
"Mud" has a bone-deep sense of place and captures as few other films have how it feels to be a young person on the precipice of maturity, having outgrown some trappings of childhood but not others, asked to take on some of the duties of adulthood but not allowed to share in all of its rewards. It's about developing one's self, one's sense of ethics and integrity, what it takes to become a man, how it feels when you get there, how it feels when you don't. In my review of the great performances of 2013, I named Sheridan and Lofland the best child actors of the year and McConaughey best lead actor. It's a hell of a film that boasts three performances for the ages.
Director Jeff Nichols has made the best movie set in Arkansas since Carl Franklin's "One False Move" two decades ago. He's deathly allergic to cliché and often purposefully upends the expectations instilled in us by generations of filmmakers content to rely on shopworn tropes. Even in a tense moment in "Mud," when the Texas scion's rich daddy and a convoy of bounty hunters are onto Mud's trail (and, by extension, Juniper's and the boys'), when the camera follows Ellis down a motel corridor, it does not necessarily mean that the bad guys are right behind him.
The ending lets "Mud" down a little bit. It culminates in a shootout that's not as unique and special as what's come before. But make no mistake: here is one of the very best films of 2013.