Movie Review: ‘Mud’

Chivalry is not dead.

On the contrary, it’s alive and well in “Mud,” a meditative and engaging new thriller starring Matthew McConaughey.

Right now it isn’t playing in Williamsport, but keep your eye out; this beautifully acted and lovingly photographed gem is five times more thought-provoking than much of what passes for entertainment nowadays.

Set in coastal Arkansas, the tale has two boys befriending a loner (McConaughey, in the titular role) who is hiding from the law but seems both likable and trustworthy.

One boy, Ellis, is attracted to the mysterious refugee because of Mud’s apparent devotion to an equally mysterious woman (Reese Witherspoon) – in contrast to the boy’s own parents, who can’t get along.

Indeed, as written and directed by Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter,” “Shotgun Stories”), “Mud” weaves a web of themes about how men relate to the women they love, specifically, whether women really want a devoted knight-in-armor.

And in cases where the answer seems to be yes, Nichols wants to know how healthy it is for the man to lay his life at her feet – feet that are often only made of clay.

Like so many other intelligent films, “Mud” offers no easy answers.

McConaughey is solid, though I still think his finest work was in “Lincoln Lawyer.”

Here, I was even more impressed by the lesser-known Ray McKinnon as Ellis’s dad. It’s an astonishingly vulnerable and nuanced performance, the more so because it calls no attention to itself.

Witherspoon excels in the kind of white-trash role with which she is not generally associated and further fine support is provided by the reliable Sam Shepard, plus Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as the boys.

Another name to remember is that of cinematographer Adam Stone.

I don’t know a lot about film photography, but much of “Mud” seems to have been shot with natural lighting, and Stone’s use of sunlight is astonishing – once again because it’s so low-key and unassuming. I doubt you’ll see anything better this year. It reminded me of Laszlo Kovacs, another lens-man who called so little attention to himself that he never even got an Oscar nomination. (For a tasty sample, try 1972’s “King of Marvin Gardens.”)

“Mud” will strike some as too slow and deliberate, but it’s certainly never boring. It’s kind of like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” leisurely and largely character driven; and not till the end do you suddenly realize what a stronghold the film has staked out in your heart.

Though the climax is genuinely thrilling, don’t expect the usual twists and turns found in contemporary thrillers, which often fall all over themselves – and stomp all over logic – trying to keep you guessing.

“Mud” is not that kind of movie. It needs no assistance from plot mechanics or surprises. The characters and themes are enough to keep you guessing long after the credits roll.

*** (out of four)

The film is rated PG-13 for language and violence.