By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, and Joe Don Baker
I will admit it: I was one of them. There was a time when each and every time a new Matthew McConaughey project was announced, I, along with half the male population, would roll my eyes. Because even after great performances in films like A Time To Kill and Frailty, they seemed to be too few and far between. McConaughey seemed intent on letting his talent remain hidden, as he would just linger around in rom-coms, which were the farthest things from challenging that you could get. After almost a decade of this off and on game, I was literally starting to give up on him. Until something strange started happening in the last few years or so. With roles in films like Lincoln Lawyer and Killer Joe, McConaughey started making cinematic statements proclaiming that he was challenging himself again. And in Mud, those statements can be signed & sealed. Tantalizingly gripping, Mud is a backwoods, sentimental tale that comes off as a sort of respect filled career resurgence (although Killer Joe contains a scene that pretty much tells everyone who doubted him, like myself, to go screw themselves). However, McConaughey is not the only one who benefits from director Jeff Nichols‘ fantastic script.
As good as it was, I have always thought that Take Shelter, Nichols’ last directed film, was a tad overrated. Bordering on boredom, it was a decent film but I was not as taken in with those characters as most seemed to be. With Mud, Nichols corrects what few mistakes he made with his last effort and keeps his career ship steered in the right direction. An obvious homage to old Mark Twain tales, Mud tells the story of two boys, Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Lofland), who stumble on a boat in a tree while out getting into shenanigans. On a mission to make it their new tree house, they discover that the boat, which was put there by a prior flood, is already inhabited by a guy who seems to love nudie magazines. This man’s name is Mud (cue Primus joke now), and eventually the boys discover a Wanted poster with his name and picture on it. A seemingly obvious decision is made into a predicament when Ellis takes a liking to Mud and Neckbone remains skeptical. Eventually, Mud devises a getaway plan that involves Juniper (Witherspoon) his high school sweetheart. Will the boys carry it out, or will Neckbone’s influence reign over Mud’s?Mud is an interesting look at the human psyche that goes along with living somewhere in which nothing happens. And it was a nice surprise seeing McConaughey go all out in this role. Because not only did he not shave and let his hair grow out. He also carries a snake tattoo and chipped tooth, making Mud the type of character that I have never seen him take on before. Of course, a good performance is about more than just looks. And McConaughey puts his look to good use as Mud. Never as sympathetic as he could be, but always as heart wrenching as he should be, punches are not held, and this performance should earn him more than just ogles over his body (although there are a few instances that should please the ladies). The other thing about Mud is that there are two kids in the main story arc, and they both are not annoying. Even though Lofland is the boy who is skeptical, you don’t hate him because all of his points are valid. Even more so when Mud makes the admission that he has in fact killed a guy. Sheridan, as Ellis, is great. Yes it is a common convention to have an easy to be influenced boy be influenced by a less than likely father figure. But Sheridan is so convincing in his emphatical performance, that we have no choice but to be on his side. Especially given the fact that Mud’s own mission pretty much mirrors his own. All of this is pulled off very well. Shannon shows up for a short time (I think he has a super hero movie or something he was shooting at the time), and his role in this feels more like a favor to Nichols. But he is good. However, the spotlight here belongs to McConaughey and a girl named Reese.Don’t get me wrong: I am a big fan of what Witherspoon brings to the screen. I think she has the capabilities to play a role as strong as June Carter Cash every time if she wanted to. But like McConaughey, she has been hanging around Hollywood, doing bill paying trash like This Means War. All I have to say about her role in Mud is: welcome back, Ms Witherspoon. Bringing back the fire and brimstone that she displayed in 1995’s Freeway, Witherspoon is excellent in the role of Juniper. Like every well written character, hers is caked in a shade of gray, and it was a joy seeing her tackle this role.
Things start turning conventional once Juniper’s boyfriend and his family come into the picture, with the story unfolding just as you‘d expect it to. And it is in this particular section that I could see trimming a bit of Mud‘s 131 minute running time. But small quibbles aside, Mud is a fantastic coming of age story that in a lot of ways reminded me of Stand By Me. Which is not a bad thing. It also got me to thinking: if two boys can find a wanted man, and McConaughey can keep finding tremendous roles, then why can’t Hollywood find more directors like Nichols to helm more great moral exploring gems like this?
4 out of 5