Matthew McConaughey. A few years ago, that name was synonymous for romantic-comedy “fluff” films such as The Wedding Planner and Failure to Launch. He was pretty much perceived as a “pretty boy” whose prerequisite for a film was to have a few scenes with his shirt off so ladies would swoon at the screen. Then, 2011 came along and he shed his rom-com reputation by starring in the acclaimed legal drama The Lincoln Lawyer. What has followed since has been what the media has labeled a “career renaissance” for the guy a girl was supposed to lose in ten days. And now with his turn in director Jeff Nichols’ remarkable drama Mud, McConaughey continues to prove that there is indeed a talented actor in him after all.
In Mud, McConaughey plays the title role—a man hiding out on a nearby island in the South who is discovered by two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Although McConaughey dominates much of the publicity for the film, the lead belongs more to Sheridan. The film is his coming-of-age story. With a backdrop of the Mississippi River, Mud has been compared quite often to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – and the film very much plays out like a classic novel. Nichols immerses us beautifully in 14-year-old Ellis’ world in the South, where he lives in a rickety house on the water with his father (Ray McKinnon) and mother (Sarah Paulson).
Ellis and Neckbone befriend Mud, particularly Ellis. They become intrigued (as young adolescents would be) by Mud’s stories of his snake tattoo, his lucky shirt and the crosses on the heels of his boots. Even his hideout of choice on the island – a boat that is hanging precariously up in a tree – mesmerizes them. The reason Mud is in hiding is because he is being pursued by bounty hunters for killing the abusive lover of his childhood sweetheart Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, also impressively shedding a bit of her “fluff” film persona here). Mud has hopes to reunite with Juniper and escape it all together. Everything about Mud—his backstory, his personality, his current lot in life—is portrayed precisely like a character out of a Huck Finn-like novel, and therein lies much of the beauty of the film. And with a lead in a young adolescent boy in the South (a la Huck), the comparisons are unavoidable.
With Mud’s declarations of love and unyielding devotion for Juniper, Ellis becomes fascinated by the notion of love, and it becomes a major running theme throughout the film. He’s a young boy just now discovering what love means and feels like. He ends up pining for and pursuing a slightly older local girl, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). But this being a coming-of-age story, Ellis also comes to discover that love just isn’t that easy—not only with May Pearl, but with the conflicts he sees in Mud and Juniper, as well as in his own, near-separating parents.
Under Nichols’ rock-solid direction, young Sheridan leads the film nicely in his portrayal of Ellis and we are immersed in his adventures with Mud and in himself. And he’s aided greatly by McConaughey’s willing turn as a man with a dark past and a hope for a future with his love. Within this very flawed character and his enthralling predicament, McConaughey was able to show a great deal of dramatic range and throw a little, well, mud on the way we have perceived him all these years. He engaged himself with the character and embodied his plight in every way an actor who cares about his craft would.
Overall, Mud impressively showcases a Matthew McConaughey that I would hope we will see more of in the future. And by the looks of his next two projects – Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and the true-life drama Dallas Buyers Club – it looks like the McConaughey “renaissance” isn’t about to stop anytime soon.
Mud is now available to rent or own on DVD/Blu-ray, so be sure to check out one of the best films of the year!
5 out of 5 stars
Two young boys in the South encounter a fugitive and help him evade the bounty hunters who are hot on his trail and to reunite him with his troubled childhood sweetheart.