We can now officially consider Matthew McConaughey among the best actors working today. His strongest and most meticulous performance comes in the form of Mud, a rugged and mysterious wander with roots burrowed in classic literature like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The story revolves around two young teenage boys who meet the mysterious man and form a pact to help him evade bounty hunters from his past and to reunite him with his true love. The movie stars Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard and Reese Witherspoon.
Somehow Matthew McConaughey has been under the radar for the past two years, yet he’s been doing his best work. After a promising 1990’s career he fell victim to the romantic comedy! He took some time off and has been making great career choices the past two years while also giving fantastic performances (Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, Bernie, Killer Joe). Apparently Jeff Nichols took notice. Nichols directed one of the best movies of 2011 (Take Shelter).
Here Nichols writes/directs a movie that distances itself from his past work and pushes himself into new territory. He does a fantastic job capturing the tone/feel of a small town in Arkansas. McConaughey stars as Mud, a mysterious figure that oozes American charisma. Poetic ramblings roll off his tongue and we just stare in awe at the incarnate American.
I could see McConaughey or Sheridan getting an Oscar nomination for their performances. When Ellis, played by Tye Sheridan, and Neckbone (sounds like a Land Before Time character), played by Jacob Lofland, stumble upon Mud on an island, they got caught up in Mud’s giant imagination and charm.
They decide to make a deal with Mud and reunite him with his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) while also helping him fix a boat that would be very useful. Sheridan who was recently in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” and Jacob Lofland, who is a newcomer, give strong performances of the Stand By Me mold.
Ellis takes a strong liking to Mud because sees in him what he wants his parents to have. This is Ellis’ story and we follow him throughout it all and see things the way he does. Tye Sheridan expertly plays this character who still has innocence and sense of wonder at an age where things get so complicated in one’s life. Ellis’ parents played by Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson have a lovely chemistry despite the animosity they show towards each other as they debate splitting up. Mud provides a way for Ellis to cope with his familial problems.
Mud’s dark past still haunts him as he tries to reunite with Juniper while bounty hunters are chasing him. Ellis and Longneck get caught up in this mess. This movie has a good amount of noirish plot but it’s paced so well and the characters and acting are so great that it never feels disconnected. It all meshes together to feel like a complete vision.
There multiple story lines going on but they all link back to Mud and Ellis which keeps it a confined story, but the brilliance is that the themes richen and translate throughout all of these story lines to create an almost novelistic vision.
A great supporting character comes from Sam Shepard, an ex assassin of sorts who plays a guardian and mental compass for the boys. Much like the island Mud lives on, which is full of wonder, but also danger (animals specifically), the outside world Ellis comes to learn is very much the same. The story itself plays like a fairy tale metaphor at times.
If only it was a bit less reliant on tropes throughout then this could knock on the doors of other American classics. And still, it may one day.
Many movies reach for visionary worlds but don’t ever connect the notes. Mud reaches and almost always hits its notes throughout. You latch on to these characters and genuinely care for them because of Nichols careful construction of relationships and the setting. For me a great movie NEEDS three things (generally speaking): A great and engaging story, powerfully resonant themes, and a memorable character. Check. Check. Check.
McConaughey is transformative as Mud who feels like a folklore hero yet still remains accessible to the audience as a vulnerable hero. He would have completely stole the show had Tye Sheridan not hit it out of the park like he did. The story is told through his innocent eyes and we relate to him because we can see ourselves in him.
Jeff Nichols touches something special in Mud. If it’s too familiar then it’s happily too familiar and Nichols puts his own spin on the coming of age film. The movie itself probably has to thank Mark Twain and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for its engaging story and memorable characters. The movies addresses relationships, trust, growing up, and moving on in a way that feels genuinely authentic and lived in. As the movie ended and I walked out I felt sad because this story was over. This is a film that doesn’t come along often. Mud explores youth and aging through mythical ideas of love and sacrifice in the shadow of American folklore.