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As movie titles go, “Mud” is a little misleading, because it shines a spotlight on the wrong character. Mud is a drifter on the run from the law, hiding out on a small island off the Mississippi River in rural Arkansas.

He seems to live in the mud and muck, and his character is muddied by passion and frustration for a girl, Juniper, who has left him but has arrived in a nearby town ready to rejoin him, if only she can summon the love he thought they had.

What is intriguing about “Mud” isn’t Mud, though; it is Ellis – the freckle-faced 14-year-old who is the film’s central character, willing to risk everything for his ideals. He and his pal Neck are like Huck and Tom, stuck in troubled families, desperate to explore the river that runs through the heart of the hard-scrabble but lovely Arkansas countryside. On one of their forays they discover a boat nestled in a tree, swept aloft by a recent flood. It is a compelling metaphor of life gone awry. Poking around, they find that someone has already found the boat – Mud.

They do not know what to make of him at first. He is crazed with hunger and caked with dirt. He is superstitious and might be out of his mind. He tells them he needs their help, and when they ask what he is doing there, he says he killed a man in Texas for beating up his girl, and now the dead man’s relatives are after him as well as the authorities. It could be a lie: Neck is suspicious, but Ellis, a risk-taker and romantic at heart, burdened by his own blossoming adolescent love pains, decides to help Mud evade the law and reconnect with Juniper.

Matthew McConaughey portrays Mud as both likable and vaguely sinister. Tye Sheridan is wonderful as Ellis, a boy on the cusp of manhood, ready to make big decisions even if not all of them are good ones.

The main characters of “Mud” are terrific, and they are backed by such fine supporting actors as Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon and Joe Don Baker. But there is a problem with the story. The American South seems to exert a lurid hold on Hollywood imaginations, leading to plots that are like Gothic fever dreams. Director and writer Jeff Nichols falls into this trap and, sure enough, there is an apocalyptic ending that is as silly as it is unnecessary.

In an interview Mr. Nichols described the movie as a combination of Sam Peckinpah and Mark Twain. Had he focused more on Twain, and the characters’ love and concern for each other, and left out the Peckinpah bombast, he -– and the audience – would have been better off.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently three consecutive Northern...