Film Review by: Gordon K. Smith
Matthew McConaughey gives his finest performance to date in the eponymous MUD, a role he seems born to play. It’s a flawed but engrossing melodrama that, in an era of rampant “hicksploitation” on tacky reality TV shows, presents an authentic and deeply atmospheric depiction of rural Southerners, thanks to writer/director/Arkansas-born Jeff Nichols. Specifically, they’re residents of a small Mississippi River community in Arkansas; only a calender indicates that it’s 2011; it could be anytime in the last 50 years (cell phones are conspicuously scarce).
The premise is classic or cliché coming of age, depending on how you look at it. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is a 14-year-old boy who lives on the river with his battling parents; he and his pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) cruise Ole Miss in true Mark Twain style, looking for scrap and trouble. They find both when they discover a boat lodged in a tree on a small island, thanks to a flood; therein, evidence that someone’s been living there. That turns out to be Mud (the only name he’s given here), a Mystery Man With Dark Secrets On The Run Who Befriends Two Boys In Bad Need of Role Models and …and McConaughey is perfection in a complex role that allows him to excel beyond abs and a toothy grin. Mud’s there to keep an eye on Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), his lifelong love, who’s living in a motel in town and pursued by the family of the man Mud killed to protect her. Mud’s been camping out in the boat (apparently he never bathes), and makes deals with the boys for food, cigs, and parts to repair the boat. In return he promises them, among other things, his .45 pistol – the one featured prominently in the poster, which you logically expect to play a big part in the climax (and, oddly, doesn’t).
More characters and subplots are added to the mix, some of them superfluous. Tom (a superb Sam Shepard) lives on the river and also has a mysterious background, maybe as a CIA hitman. Is he Mud’s real father or a surrogate one? It’s deliberately a bit vague. Ellis gets inspired by Mud’s devotion to Juniper to make his move on his dream girl, with decidedly mixed results. Neckbone’s being raised by his uncle, salvage diver Michael Shannon (star of Nichols’ previous film, TAKE SHELTER), a character who really has only a small connection to the main plot. A whole posse of bounty hunter/hired killers, hired by the father (Joe Don Baker) of the man Mud killed, converge on the town to find Mud (not very good at their line of work, it appears by the end). Ellis’ house is in danger of being torn down. And so on.
As if to reward the viewer’s patience for sticking with a slightly overlong, leisurely paced film, the story comes to an overblown big shoot out climax that is expertly done but defies logic on several levels (without too many spoilers – wouldn’t the posse wait to catch Mud out in the open?) And the ending is one of those in which people who go through an awful experience seem to be just fine, even better for it. Some threads go unresolved here, including the character of Juniper – Reese is well cast, but doesn’t do anything special with the role, and we don’t learn enough about her motivations.
Still, it’s McConaughey’s show, and he’s a natural in every sense – Mud’s final conversation with Ellis is one of the high points of 2013 cinema so far. I don’t toss out adjectives like “Oscar worthy” carelessly, but yep, it should be Matt’s year, especially coming after his stellar work in 2012 (he might have been nominated for KILLER JOE except that it probably horrified the Academy). Another nomination should go to cinematographer Adam Stone for his gritty and lyrical visuals of the river and those who live on, near it, and by it. The cast is generally fine, but Sheridan and Lofland are a real find—they look, act and talk like real teenagers trying to figure out that very strange world of adulthood.