You can tell when you are witnessing a serious turn by movie star Matthew McConaughey. He furrows his brow and scans his co-stars, as if he is searching for their souls. He reaches down deep for a level of depth and pathos that you always forget he has and then reminds you why he’s worked with Spielberg, Soderbergh and Linklater. Most of all though, you notice he is wearing a shirt. “This is my protection,” McConaughey says of his raggedy clothing early in this week’s Mud. “And I can’t give you that.” Yep, this is definitely serious McConaughey and we are all the better for it.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols of Take Shelter, Mud is a slowly fried Southern feast of emotion and humanity cooked on the murky banks of the Mississippi. Set in Nichols’ home state of Arkansas, Mud risks a semi-autobiographical coming of age story in its beginning. Nichols even casts local boys Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland to add to that flavor of authenticity. Fortunately, Nichols keeps his early promise of channeling Mark Twain by crafting a story of adventure for the young eyes of his protagonists, but also one of complexity and suffering for his more knowing audience. This is about a man named Mud and his impact on a young life.
Ellis (Sheridan) lives on the Mississippi River. Literally, he works as a river rat with his father (Ray McKinnon) from their houseboat. Unfortunately, their way of life is changing. The government is going to force them to dismantle the floating home due to a new law and Ellis’ mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson), is getting ready to dismantle her failed marriage to a simpering husband. The only solace Ellis can find these days is on his tiny motorboat or dirt bike with best friend Neckbone (Lofland). Neckbone also wants to get out of his far more stationary home where Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) always has company over. Together, they scour the river, almost daily, in search of something that does not involve their home lives. One summer they find exactly what they are looking for in the form of a man named Mud (McConaughey).
Mud has set-up a small life for himself on a wooded island in the middle of the river. All he has on his person are a shirt, handgun and a mischievous smile. His smooth talking affability quickly enlists the kids as his errand boys. Having found an abandoned boat in the island’s trees that is big enough to sail down the delta and into open water, Mud aims to repair the vessel and will need a lot of supplies to do it.
Considering that the State Police and a local gang of mercenaries are searching the town for Mud after some mysterious murder down in Texas, he really needs these kids’ loyalty. He offers them his prized weapon and tales of a life full of adventure, but his ace in the hole is a promise that he is doing it all for the love of a woman living in a nearby motel. See, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) was Mud’s childhood sweetheart and if Ellis helps Mud motor out of the country, it will be happily ever after for their love story. How can a 14-year-old with divorcing parents resist?
Mud is a moody tale of river-wise kids who get caught up way out of their depth. The prospect of, vicariously, living a better life through Mud and Juniper, as opposed to listening to parents squabble every night, seems preferable to an audience and is totally irresistible to the adolescents. By casting kids who already knew how to pilot boats and drive motorcycles, Nichols has discovered great talent in the very believable Sheridan and Lofland. Sheridan especially develops Ellis into a scruffy kid who longs for stability and a reaffirmation of love between adults. The fact that he may unwisely pin all those hopes on a guy living on an island with a gun is only a testament to his optimism and naiveté.
It helps that this guy is intensely realized by McConaughey. Between The Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie and, yes, Magic Mike all being released in the last few years, McConaughey is experiencing a renaissance of recognition for his often overlooked talent. And he has perhaps never been better than in Mud, a film that allows him to turn on the charisma as a sad man whose own life he denies. The film shifts tonally halfway through from being Ellis’s coming of age story to Mud’s much darker morality play. Mud and Juniper likely do love each other, but their repeated self-destructive choices force them into difficult places that Ellis could never understand. While McConaughey and Witherspoon never actually share a single frame together, the anger and yearning both feel is palatable, as is the relief the two stars exude from not having to mug for the camera once.
One performance that gets to shine late in the film is Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship. The crotchety old neighbor of Ellis, Tom is the reason Mud has washed up on these banks again. Already an orphan when he first showed up at Tom’s boathouse, Mud owes his name and life to the one-time Marine. In trouble yet again, Mud has come home for his surrogate father’s help. Yet, one cannot blame Tom for only having disgust and disappointment for the boy who has thrown his life away again and again for a woman who will not even cross the motel parking lot for him. If Mud offers Ellis a siren’s call of fantasy and hope, Tom is his rude reminder of a reality that is never so simple as a Southerner’s tall tale.
A dark cloud threatens to drown all the characters in Mud’s third act. When Joe Don Baker shows up as the father of the man Mud killed, he brings ominous assurance for a Biblical wrath to follow. Yet for all its ending thunder, Mud remains a character study about a boy and a man who both have to grow up in an unforgiving world. Such clarity keeps the movie afloat in even the most violent waters.