DIR/WRI: Jeff Nichols • PRO: Lisa Maria Falcone, Sarah Green, Aaron Ryder • DOP: Adam Stone • ED: Julie Monroe • DES: Richard A. Wright • Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard
The career renaissance of Matthew McConaughey can’t be denied or stopped. In the space of two years, he’s gone from reviled rom-com actor with impossible abs to an actor that is both critically and commercially successful. With such powerful performances like William Freidkin’s Killer Joe, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike and Richard Linklater’s Bernie, McConaughey’s career is returning to its earlier promise. Mud continues this upward trend. Set in the Deep South, the titular character is a charismatic vagabond who’s hiding out in a swamp islet. Two young boys, Ellis and ‘Neckbone’ (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland), find ‘Mud’ during an exploration of the islet. From the very beginning, it’s clear Mud is drawing influences from Mark Twain. As the story progresses, it’s clear that Mud is not all he claims he is and is hiding out in the islet after an altercation involving another man and his ‘one true love’, in the form of Juniper – played by Reese Witherspoon.
McConaughey’s performance is perfectly balanced, mixing folksy charisma with an animal-like sense of desperation. Dispensing nuggets of wisdom to the two young men who’ve deigned to help him, it’s clear that McConaughey’s continuing his remarkable form of late. The two young actors, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, both turn in sturdy performances. Tye Sheridan, in particular, previously impressed in Terence Mailck’s Tree Of Life. Their portrayals are never cute or overbearing, rather they feel natural and unscripted. This works well as McConaughey has enough know-how to guide them through some of the trickier scenes and carries them when they’re lacking. Granted, both actors are sixteen or younger, so to manfully keep up with an actor like McConaughey is high praise indeed. Michael Shannon also appears, briefly, as a guardian to one of the boys. Shannon imbues the small role with a real sense of heart and dignity, and also manages to fire off some cackling one-liners involving love. Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson, two Deadwood-alums, also feature as parents to the other boy, Ellis. Their story blends nicely with Mud’s more fantasy-laden tale, documenting the end of their simple existence on the bayou and the eventual realities of life. Joe Don Baker gives a magnificent performance as King, the man hunting Mud for reasons that will become clear through the narrative. Baker, at 77, reminds us why he’s a fantastic character actor with just a few short scenes that carry more emotional weight than anything he’s done in years.
Jeff Nichols’ direction is restrained, yet beautiful. Following on from the apocalyptic Take Shelter, Nichols makes a coming-of-age drama that is neither cynical nor saccharine. It places itself neatly in the middle, perfectly capturing the harsh way of life that is fast disappearing in rural America. The script, as mentioned, is light and natural and the characters therein are developed fully. Mud’s sense of grandeur and whimsy is intoxicating. You can clearly see why the young boys are brought along with him and, as well, how he’s full of hot air. The two young boys, Ellis and Neckbone, are drawn from Twain and, to a lesser extent, Stephen King’s Stand By Me. That said, it’s clear that Nichols is ploughing his own furrow and the film is original in its premise. The cinematography is spectacular, capturing the gorgeous colours of the Southern Bayou and its grungy landscape. In all, Mud is a touching coming-of-age drama that works both as a character study and a morality tale. McConaughey continues to delight and impress whilst Nichols, at 34, marks himself out as a director to watch.