‘Mud’ reminds us how Witherspoon can shine

Reese Witherspoon’s arrest on a disorderly conduct charge generated headlines all week, just as her new movie “Mud,” in theaters now, was about to open.

The timing is too bad. The movie, starring Matthew McConaughey as a quirky, superstitious character hiding out on a little island off the Mississippi coast until two adventurous teens discover him, is superb.

Witherspoon plays Juniper, a tragic figure who is the object of devotion for Mud, the oddball McConaughey plays.

We saw it several weeks ago and interviewed director Jeff Nichols before his star’s run-in with the law became news. He said the actress, who has been in Atlanta filming “The Good Lie,” was a joy to work with.

“I did not write Juniper for Reese,” he said. Jim Toth, McConaughey’s agent, is Witherspoon’s husband (who was arrested with her and now faces a DUI charge), and he set things in motion.

“I said, ‘She would be incredible. Do you think she would do it?’” Nichols recalled. “You could tell she was up for it. I knew from the first time I met her she’d be great.”

The movie filmed in Arkansas without a huge budget, but the Oscar-winning Witherspoon was game for “not getting paid very much and coming to the ends of the earth,” Nichols said.

The movie weaves together the tales of Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two boys with a dirt bike and a little river skiff and their sense of daring to help them escape home lives that aren’t the greatest. While Mud’s troubles with the law and his lady friend drive much of the narrative, the movie reaches deep into the lives of the two young folks wrestling with all sorts of teen drama.

“I wanted this film to feel like the Mississippi River,” Nichols said. “You’re not at a rushed pace, but you’re in constant motion. That wouldn’t fly in a traditional film. That’s the kind of movie I like.”

He also kept the casting for his two young stars local.

“It didn’t make sense to go to Hollywood to find two little river rats,” said Nichols, who studied filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. “I very much looked for boys who were these kids. You’re writing a movie that rests squarely on the shoulders of two 14-year-old boys. I lucked out in spades.”

Audiences did, too.