WRITTEN BY: Jeff Nichols
DIRECTED BY: Jeff Nichols
STARRING: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon
RATING: 4.5 stars

Love. That is the central theme in Mud, a dark and complex tale in which each character's notion of love drives their at times extreme, violent, deceptive or optimistic actions. Mud also beautifully juxtaposes the promise of youth with some of the harsh realities of life. While the film is a coming of age story and a character-driven mystery, there are actually many layers to the plot and intriguing characters that you will be pondering the depths of its message hours after seeing it.

Set in Arkansas, best friends Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) find a boat stuck in a tree on a deserted island and plan to make it their own. But they discover a mysterious man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) already squatting in the boat. Mud tells the boys he is waiting for his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) but also admits to being a wanted man by police and bounty hunters. Ellis and Neckbone ignore warning signs to stay away from Mud, and instead agree to help him reunite with Juniper and escape those looking for him.

Much like River Phoenix in Stand By Me and Leonardo DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, the two young actors in this film give a powerful and moving performance. While McConaughey may play the title character, Mud is actually Sheridan's film. He is in most scenes and has several very emotive scenes. Viewers at my screening were so engrossed in the protagonist and his story that there were several audible gasps during a few of his more dangerous and climactic scenes. It says a lot about how strong a performance he gives. Lofland was also very strong and provided some good comedy relief too. The youngsters had great chemistry. McConaughey was also convincing, playing such a tragic figure. Mud is distinctive with his snake tattoo, chipped tooth and boots with crosses on the heels. He has enough danger, charisma and intrigue to draw you in, which suits McConaughey perfectly. It is enjoyable to see him in these serious roles lately, but he still manages to get his shirt off in one scene. Only Witherspoon was ineffective. Her character had little to do and she seemed rather one-dimensional.

As previously mentioned, different views on love are explored thoroughly in the film presenting cynical, idealistic and romantic ideas. Specifically, Ellis' parents (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) are facing divorce, while Ellis is still a passionate believer in the notion of love and its power to overcome anything. It is that belief that makes him want to help Mud, who has loved the same girl since childhood, and it also makes him pursue his own romance with an older teenager. Meanwhile, Juniper has a more needy and manipulative take on love. The film also explores the different types of love between children and their parents and guardians with Mud, Ellis and Neckbone all having different experiences. The film does not strive to make a point about whose perceptions are right or wrong, it merely presents the various types of love.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols has already received praise for this film overseas. Aside from the story and performances, there is also some great cinematography capturing the landscape, fauna and flora of the area. Mud is slightly too long and the ending is a little too conventional, considering how unique the rest of the film is. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful film. I hope Australian audiences embrace it.