Mud opens this week, and there are plenty of reasons to get down and dirty with this awesome, Arkansas-set indie. Reese Witherspoon plays Juniper, the true love of fugitive Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who's camped out on an island in the Mississippi River until he can engineer their escape. Mud convinces two 14-year old boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), to help him repair an abandoned boat, even as the police and bounty hunters close in for the kill. Ready to dive in, y'all? First, get your feet wet (and muddy) with these five fun facts:
1. Magic Mac: Mud continues McConaughey's recent acting renaissance, as he's abandoned formulaic rom-coms for challenging roles in smaller films helmed by Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike) and William Friedkin (Killer Joe). Here he teams with relative newcomer Jeff Nichols, who started writing Mud for McConaughey more than a decade ago, after seeing the actor in Lone Star. The lengthy gamble paid off—charismatic McConaughey is terrific as gritty, slippery Mud and gives this slow boil of a story the real Southern simmer it needs.
2. Illegally Blonde: Witherspoon's Juniper is a hard-livin', Daisy Dukes-wearin' Dixie darlin'—and the object of Mud's obsession, though the two actors only appear in one scene together. The film marked Witherspoon's first trip back to Arkansas since starring in Walk the Line, for which she won a Best Actress Oscar. To prep for her Juniper role, she studied photos of women at motocross events, noting their clothes, hair, makeup, tattoos and 'tudes.
3. Casting a Wide Net: Mud is writer-director Jeff Nichols' third feature, after Shotgun Stories and his Cannes Grand Prize winner, Take Shelter. He has assembled a talented and diverse cast, from total newbie Jacob Lofland (an Arkansan chosen from over 2,000 boys who auditioned) to acclaimed actor-writer Sam Shepard as a mysterious, reclusive neighbor. Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) more than holds his own as Ellis, while Sarah Paulson jumps from American Horror Story to Southern Gothic as Ellis' long-suffering ma.
4. Hope You Don't Have Ophidiophobia! A fear of snakes, that is. Because scaly serpents—the literal and figurative kind—play important roles in the film. There's the snake tattoo that winds around Mud's arm, which serves as reminder of his near-fatal snakebite, and the cottonmouths that slither through swamps on his island. This pit of venomous vipers also includes the cold-blooded assassins hunting Mud, adding to the movie's coiling tension before the final strike. Eek.
5. Deep Southern-Fried Charm: Mud filmed on location in Arkansas for 39 days, the largest production to ever shoot in "The Natural State." Thanks to the locale and a native-born writer/director (Nichols grew up in Little Rock), the film captures an authentic Southern voice and storytelling sensibility. It also evokes Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (required reading for Sheridan and Lofland while on set) with its Mississippi River setting, young male protagonists, and themes of friendship and sacrifice.