by Steve Habrat
Over the years, actor Matthew McConaughey became known as the guy who starred in all those fuzzy romantic comedies that your mother and girlfriend loved. Every so often, he’d jump into a disposable action movie like Reign of Fire or Sahara, or surprise you with his dark turn in the underrated horror movie Frailty, but you couldn’t help but peg him as that romantic comedy dude who was always chasing around Kate Hudson or Sarah Jessica Parker. Recently, McConaughey has broken from his usual roles and started accepting beefier parts that really showcase his talents as an actor. One of these roles would be the title character in director Jeff Nichols’s critically acclaimed drama Mud, which debuted a Cannes in 2012 and then enjoyed a quiet limited release in 2013. Hailed as one of the standouts of 2013, Mud is a surprisingly candid coming-of-age drama that features strong emotional turns from McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, an actress that has kept a relatively low profile since her Academy Award winning role in Walk the Line. While Mud is certainly a down-to-earth Southern tale about love found and love lost, the film feels a bit too familiar in places, something that ultimately holds it back from tru greatness..
Mud introduces us to Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two preteens battling boredom in De Witt, Arkansas. One day, Neckbone takes Ellis out to an island on the Mississippi River where he has discovered a rickety boat stuck high up in a tree. Ellis and Neckbone intend to make their discovery a new hangout location, but they are shocked when they discover that there happens to be a man living in the boat. The man introduces himself as Mud (played by Matthew McConaughey), a shaggy drifter who claims to be hiding out on the island and in desperate need of some food. Mud tells the boys that if they’ll bring him so food, he’ll allow the boys to have the boat when he leaves the island. Ellis and Neckbone agree to help the mystery man out, but they soon learn from police department that Mud is, in fact, a fugitive on the run from the law. When the boys return to the island, they learn that Mud killed a man for severely injuring his girlfriend, Juniper (played by Reese Witherspoon). Mud explains that he is waiting to be reunited with Juniper and that he is on the island to avoid a slew of bounty hunters that are looking for him. Fascinated by Mud’s story, the boys decide to help Mud in his quest to be reunited for Juniper, but soon, the bounty hunters arrive looking to make Mud pay for what he has done.
While the tale of the shaggy-haired outlaw waiting for his ladylove is the surface story of Mud, the film’s true story belongs to the kids. A good majority of the film follows Ellis as he experiences his first love and watches his home life fall apart. We catch glimpses of his parents duking it out with each other at the kitchen table as Ellis sneaks away to meet up with Neckbone. He spies on them for only a moment before fleeing off to that island to hide from the world inside that tree boat. In town, he crushes on an older girl, May Pearl (played by Bonnie Sturdivant), who may not be taking their developing relationship as seriously as Ellis takes it. Nichols, who also wrote the film, isn’t shy about telling Ellis’s story in a realistic manner, addressing the fears of change and the sting of heartbreak in a serious tone. Despite not mincing words, this side of Mud is extremely gentle. It’s never cold-hearted or cynical, even when things seem to be at their lowest for poor Ellis and Mud. The darker side of the story manifests in Mud’s looming confrontation with the bounty hunters. They beat Juniper in the hopes of learning Mud’s whereabouts and they strike in a swarm to guarantee that our outlaw hero has absolutely no chance of escape. This certainly ups the sense of dread and it does make us fear for Mud’s safety as the final confrontation nears.
The main attraction of Mud is the undoubtedly performances, especially the ones from McConaughey and Witherspoon. McConaughey is absolutely fantastic as the lovesick outlaw with a heart of gold. The relationship he develops with Ellis is incredibly sweet, sparking hope in the young boys eyes and igniting a sense of adventure that allows him to escape his rocky home life. Witherspoon’s Juniper is a flirty free spirit who questions her affection for the marooned Mud. Sheridan is the film’s heart and soul as Ellis, a seemingly tough teen with a soft center. Lofland plays it even rougher and tougher as Neckbone, a foul-mouthed teen who means well enough. Also present are Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship, Ellis’s mysterious neighbor who has ties to Mud and ends up being an essential ally in his fight to stay alive. Nichols regular Michael Shannon gives a small but sweet performance as Galen, Neckbone’s scuba-diving uncle. Overall, while it certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel and it does end up feeling quite a bit like several other rundown dramas of recent memory, Mud is still a sensitive and ultimately optimistic drama bustling with performances that are alive with everyday emotion.
Mud is available on Blu-ray and DVD.