Take Shelter writer-director Jeff Nichols follows up his bold, engrossing drama about mental illness with a disappointingly conventional and nostalgic coming-of-age drama in the vein of Stand By Me.
Two Arkansas boys from the wrong side of the tracks encounter Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive killer hiding on an island and get swept up in the romanticism of protecting him. Tye Sheridan stood out as one of the child actors in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, and is a forceful presence as Ellis, a young teen from a troubled home who escapes from the cliquiness of Taco Bell parking lots by roaming the backwaters with his equally unprivileged best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland, less likeable as an unsympathetic ruffian). On one of their adventures on an island, they discover Mud (McConaughey), an enigmatic figure who spins a story about wrong-doings and persuades the children to pass messages to his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
Nichols’ paean to masculinity showcases yet another enthralling performance from McConaughey, who is enjoying the most remarkable stage of his career, following knockout roles in Magic Mike, Killer Joe and The Paperboy over the last year. A slow-burning test of trust and growing up, there’s intrigue aplenty, but Nichols wastes his finely-shot drama by allowing it to become a bog-standard thriller when Mud’s past catches up with him. The characterisation is thin and predictable, making it strangely uninvolving. Nichols’ muse Michael Shannon - a human tinderbox just waiting to burst into flame - pops up in a thankless but amusing supporting role as Neckbone’s sleazy uncle, and a hotpant-clad Witherspoon is a caricature dame as one of the many women to blame for the world’s ills.
The production design, so timeless this could be set in any era of the US post-1960s, is suitably run down and unglamorous, lending an authenticity and intimacy to the blue collar world Nichols presents in all his films without judgement. While Nichols married this with mystery and an almost fantastical air to great success in Take Shelter, there’s too much that is ordinary and familiar in Mud, and the film - as well as McConaughey - never burns the way it should.