‘Mud’ oozes traditional qualities

The story of a sympathetic fugitive who forges a bond with two teenage boys near a mighty river down South, “Mud” is shot through with traditional qualities of American literature and drama. Jeff Nichols’ much-anticipated follow-up to his breakthrough second feature “Take Shelter” feels less adventurous and unsettling but remains a well-carpentered piece of work marked by some fine performances and resilient thematic fiber.

Almost every relationship in Nichols’ screenplay is threatened, fractured or broken. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) has good reason to believe that his parents (Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon) are headed for a divorce, while his best pal, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), is being raised by his oyster-diving uncle Galen (Michael Shannon). Ellis, who’s 14, lives in a funky old houseboat while the nearby Arkansas town is a characterless wasteland of large chain stores and housing developments.

On a deserted island out in the Mississippi, the boys stumble into the grizzled, unkempt Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who’s hiding out in an old boat stuck up in a tree. Even though Mud soon admits that he’s killed a man in a dispute, the boys are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and, in exchange for the promise that they can have the boat once he’s done, they start ferrying food across to him in a launch.

Nichols readily admits the influence of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” on his story, in addition to those of other Southern writers. Such stories were formerly staples of American writing and there’s enough dramatic and emotional meat on this one to suspect that audiences would easily engage with it. The title character is a perennial, a flawed man who admits the error of his ways and hopes for a second chance in the face of those who vengefully seek to take him down.

Significantly more appealing is the boy, Ellis, a sensitive, watchful, tough kid who’s able to stand up for himself. Although much smaller, he punches out an older high schooler and is flirted with seriously enough by an older girl to imagine that she’s become his girlfriend. His anger at his parents for not finding a way to remain together is painful enough to give them pause. Sheridan’s performance grows in stature and confidence as the film pushes on; he often keeps his words to a minimum, but his eyes and increasingly untrusting attitude toward adults and what they say speak volumes for his burgeoning understanding of the unsavory ways of the world.

Mud’s getaway plans require the boys to steal an outboard motor for him but he also asks Ellis to contact his ladylove Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who’s laying low in town waiting for the green light to join Mud. Also hovering, however, is a squad of bounty hunters led by a hulking bad old boy (Joe Don Baker), whose son Mud killed.

There’s more than enough anger, disappointment and disillusion to go around in Nichols’ carefully constructed, slightly overextended drama. It’s easy to criticize Mud for being old-fashioned, too redolent in familiar dramatic tropes, overly intent on establishing interlocking motifs and themes, and happy to fall back on both climactic violence and wishful thinking when it comes to second chances. More than anything, the characters of the boys keep it real and alive, the film’s emotional credibility overriding its dramatic convenience.

With messy hair, tattoos and a chipped tooth, McConaughey’s Mud is a mess but still not without charm. After a string of silly and underperforming commercial outings, Witherspoon is on the money here in a strictly supporting turn as a trampy gal who’s wasted her life thus far. Young Lofland as Ellis’s pal, has a great face; Shannon, the star of “Take Shelter,” seems present more for moral support than for his role, which is very incidental, while Sam Shepard puts far more than his recent norm into his acute characterization of a man who may or may not be Mud’s real father and may or may not have been a government hit man.