Seven or so years ago an invitation to see a movie starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon would send me running away in fear. At that time, both were mostly known for lighthearted romantic comedy roles. But 2013 finds both — particularly McConaughey — in much better standing. Last year McConaughey starred in two of my favorite 2011/2012 movies, Bernie and Killer Joe, and he seems hellbent on proving that yes, he can act. Thankfully, we can add Mud to the list of stellar McConaughey performances.
Two fourteen year old boys from De Witt, Arkansas, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), discover that on an island in the middle of the river there is a boat that is mysteriously stuck in a tree. Neckbone figures it had been put there in a flood, but regardless of how it got there the two boys claim the boat as their own. After all, Step Brothers proved that there is no better treehouse than a boat in a tree, right? Especially since, like Step Brothers, the two boys discover the boat comes with a stack of dirty magazines. Of course, Mud is nothing like Step Brothers, because the boys find out that the boat is home to a mysterious stranger named Mud (McConaughey). Mud is otherworldly, with various charms on his person to ward off evil spirits and bad luck. He’s hiding out on the island as he comes up with a plan to be reunited with the love of his life, Juniper (Witherspoon). He strikes a deal with the boys: help him escape with his girl and he’ll give them something valuable. Neckbone is skeptical — he calls Mud a “bum,” which Mud corrects to “hobo” — but Ellis is won over by Mud’s determination and decides to help him, even once he discovers who Mud is hiding from.
More than anything else, Mud is about love — to be more accurate, it is about Ellis’ personal discovery of the best and worst of love. Ellis’ parents — his stern, but gutless father (Ray McKinnon) and his always sad mother (Sarah Paulson) — are having marital trouble while Ellis is trying to romance an older girl, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), and Mud’s devotion to Juniper is proof to Ellis that true love exists. He wants to help Mud because by helping him it will affirm that the chivilrous type of romance many of us long for is possible. In that sense, Mud — whether intentionally or not — riffs on the “cutesy” romance films McConaughey became known for. It also explores the relationships between fathers and their sons in an honest way that I haven’t seen in many movies.
Jeff Nichols proved his ability as a writer/director with his brilliant Take Shelter (our review of that movie still generates comments debating its ending to this day). With Mud he has created one of those wonderful child actor-driven movies of adolescent discovery, the kind that used to be Steven Spielberg‘s trademark (E.T., Empire of the Sun).
One clever aspect of the film’s structure is that the audience is privy to more of the narrative than any of the individual characters — that is, the camera follows whoever is the most interesting character at the time. This allows the audience to be exposed to every remarkable performance, and there is not a single actor in this film that disappoints. Nichols’ frequent collaborator Michael Shannon, who plays Neckbone’s uncle, adds wonderful comedic moments to the film. Another standout is Sam Shepard as Tom, one of Ellis’ neighbors who has a close connection with Mud. The role is simply tailor-made for Shepard’s strong-jawed persona. Even the boys are wonderful — they’re presented as real kids, not “Hollywood kids” — which is never an easy task with child actors. I believe every actor should jump at the chance to work with Nichols, who is fast becoming one of the most notable “actor’s directors” in the industry.
It’s been a long time since I left a movie with the sense of wonder I had after seeing Mud. Though the ending unravels rather slowly, I enjoyed every single minute of it. Don’t miss it.
RATING: A wonderfully effective film filled with performances deserving of recognition (8.5/10).
Mud will be released on April 26.