Having spent much of his career partaking in an endless array of asinine romantic comedies in which his good looks and charm were privileged over his acting chops, it is somewhat refreshing to see Matthew McConaughey branching out into more accomplished fair. With strong recent turns in Magic Mike and The Paperboy, McConaughey tops them all with a terrific performance in Mud. This is a great film from Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) in which McConaughey plays the titular character, a fugitive holed up on a deserted island in the middle of the Mississippi River in Arkansas awaiting a rendezvous with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the object of his affections.
When teenage best friends Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) stumble across Mud’s hideout, the three of them team up to salvage a boat to facilitate Mud’s reunion with Juniper and safe passage out of town. However, having killed Juniper’s most recent dalliance, Mud is being pursued by a family hell-bent on revenge of the eye-for-an-eye variety. It sounds simple enough, but with young Ellis also dealing with significant changes on the home front and his first tentative foray into romance, there is plenty going on to maintain viewer interest and it is all constructed exquisitely.
Ultimately this is a film about love in various incarnations – obsessive love, familial love, first love and the unspoken love between friends – and the loss of innocence. All of the relationships, and the characters within them, are presented with such honesty that the narrative remains utterly engaging for the two hour running time. Mud is equal parts buffoon and naïve, romantic hero who, despite his criminal leanings, never poses any kind of threat to the boys. In fact, the bond that develops between them is one of the many strengths of the film. The friendship between Ellis and Neckbone – who possesses one of the best character names ever – is so natural that you feel as though you are genuinely watching two young mates going about their business in a world refreshingly devoid of distractions such as mobile phones and video games in which they seem to enjoy daily Huckleberry Finn-style adventures even before Mud snakes his way into their life.
Nichols offers a somewhat affectionate rendering of small town life and his examination of the struggles of those living and working on the river is particularly evocative. Some viewers may draw comparisons with the equally impressive The Beasts of the Southern Wild and there are definitely some similarities between the two. However, Mud is much more subtle, but no less powerful, in its exploration of fatherhood and masculinity as Ellis’s father (Ray McKinnon) struggles to come to terms with the loss of everything he holds dear.
The performances are very strong across the board, with McConaughey, Sheridan and Lofland leading the way. Although her screen time is limited and her character is somewhat unlikeable, this is perhaps Witherspoon’s best performance since her Academy Award-winning effort in Walk the Line. Sarah Paulson articulates the resentment of Ellis’s mother Sarah Jane very effectively, with Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard and Joe Don Baker also featuring.
I found myself profoundly disappointed when this movie ended because I wanted to spend more time in this world with these characters. With Mud, Nichols has garnered naturalistic performances from a great cast to craft a thoroughly delightful film that deserves to secure a large audience.