Someone, quick: Patent a drinking game for Mud, wherein players take big shots of White Lightning whenever an allusion to Huckleberry Finn crosses the screen. Let’s begin with the footprints in the sand spotted by our two young heroes, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best buddy, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), on the river island where they find a boat stranded high up in a tree. The prints feature a cross pattern made by hammering nails in the heel, used “to ward off evil spirits,” or so Matthew McConaughey’s Mud explains to the wary boys. Drink deep: Those are almost identical to Huck’s words, recited when he first sees footprints outside the Widow Douglas’s window, warning that his pap is back. The film draws deeply from the novel, featuring tortured father-son relationships, a feud between armed families, and a stirring moment of delivery when the big river spills into the sea.
But these allusions are mainly window dressing. The story and character are plenty compelling enough to make a fine third film from director Jeff Nichols, who gave us the apocalyptic Take Shelter. It centers on the sacrifice of Ellis’s innocence — he’s first betrayed by Mud, but there are also self-betrayals. He falls in love at the drop of a hat and parades his own wounded sense of justice around town like a knight errant. The whole film is made up of failed expectations and sudden glory. Ellis’s father (Ray McKinnon) behaves senselessly, yet he’s seamlessly connected to a sad romantic. The movie feels organically whole; it doesn’t need Mark Twain to get under our skin.
You could argue that Mud moves too slowly and that McConaughey, for all of his tattoos and drawling sententiousness, is simply playing himself again. But this film’s many pleasures come from the short-order redemptions it keeps offering up — just when we think Ellis’s idyllic life on the river has been stripped forever, a cute girl pulls up in a car across the parking lot and waves. It’s not an angelic visitation, but it suggests that even innocence lost can be momentarily, happily refound.