Matthew McConaughey became a punchline for jokes. It seemed like after a strong start to his acting career -- A Time to Kill, Lone Star, Amistad -- he began to play caricatures of himself. Well, something clicked because over the last two or three years, McConaughey has gotten back down to business with roles that allow him to show off that genuine acting ability, including 2012's Mud.
Living on the Mississippi River in De Witt, Arkansas with his parents, young Ellis (Tye Sheridan) spends his days hanging out with his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), exploring the river on his boat. Their latest search involves a boat out on an island in the river that was supposedly thrown into a tree during a recent flood. Ellis and Neckbone go searching for it, finding it fairly easily, but that's not all they find. There's some pretty obvious evidence that someone is living in the boat, footprints in the sand that are clearly very recent. It doesn't take long to find who it is, a man with questions hanging over him who nonetheless bonds with the two boys. He goes simply by Mud (McConaughey), and he's hiding on the river island. More than that though, he needs their help in getting off the island meeting up with someone...urgently. What exactly is he up to though? Is he in trouble, and will he bring the boys down with him in the process?
As I read reviews for this film from director Jeff Nichols, the description "modern fairy tale" kept coming up. Is it a fair, apt description? I suppose so, emphasis on the modern part. It's a couple days later since I watched this movie, and I'm still processing it. I think I liked it, but I'm not sure why. Other than the coming of age story, I'm not sure what the message was. I don't know what it's trying to say in general. It was universally liked, reviewed in positive fashion by anyone who can put two words together, and I went in with high hopes. So will I be the one person in the entire world who didn't like this movie? Sit tight and find out.
No, it won't be me. I liked this movie, even if its hard to peg exactly why I liked this one. McConaughey's performance is obviously key (more on that later), but it's more than that. It is a fair description to call this a modern fairy tale with more of a reliance on a coming of age story. Nichols wrote and directed the film, choosing the Mississippi River as the backdrop to his story. 'Mud' reminded me in that sense of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn stories, not to mention Stand By Me. Filming on location in Arkansas, Nichols made a wise decision. The American South with its rural, backroads (not intended in a negative way) is like we're watching a different world. It's a small town, not much to do, one that's struggling with the economy, a poor town trying to survive and adapt with changing times. It does have a lyrical feel to it -- credit to composer David Wingo and his score for adding to that -- and feels removed from our world in a sense, and it all works.
Getting some Oscar buzz for his performance here, McConaughey deserves all of that buzz. He seems to be back on the right track in picking his roles from here to Dallas Buyer's Club to The Wolf of Wall Street, not to mention his parts in Magic Mike, The Paperboy and Killer Joe. I liked how he brought Mud to life from the second we meet him. The odd name is never explained, but everyone who knows him never questions it. The character is a bit of a mystery, his backstory slowly parceled out as we find out why he's hiding on this heavily-wooded island in the Mississippi. We learn maybe everything isn't so ideal, so perfect, but McConaughey makes him charming, his Southern drawl putting us at ease, his homespun stories making it hard not to like him. Mud is a trusting, fiercely loyal, honor-bound and completely genuine. He believes in what he's doing, only questioning involving the boys in his plan late in the movie. McConaughey makes Mud a great lead character, hinted at a little of his special abilities/powers, but mostly he's just a good, if flawed, guy.
The coming of age story in Arkansas river country works so well in addition to McConaughey's performance because of Sheridan as Ellis and Lofland as Neckbone (another great name never explained). This doesn't feel like two young actors working, just two teenagers and best friends going about their day-to-day lives. When they stumble on Mud on the island, it's an adventure, if a possibly dangerous one. I loved what both of them brought to the story, a believable, human development that never feels forced. They're in that messy teenage period, trying to figure out life, their families, what they want to be, Ellis becoming the main character, Mud his unlikely teacher of life of sorts. Ellis has a crush on May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), an older girl in town, is dealing with his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) possibly divorcing, all on top of what Mud needs their help for.
The rest of the cast kinda got lost in the shuffle of McConaughey's excellent lead performance, Reese Witherspoon playing Juniper, Mud's seemingly doomed girlfriend, Sam Shepard as Tom, Ellis' neighbor across the river who knows Mud from years past, Michael Shannon as Galen, Neckbone's Uncle who he lives with since his parents passed away, Paul Sparks as Carver, a man pursuing Mud, Joe Don Baker appearing briefly and in intimidating fashion as Carver's menacing father.
I really wasn't sure where this one was going. I really wasn't sure what the message was, basically every woman we meet a really poor representation of anything good, all of them nagging, cheating, manipulative individuals. I've done my best not to give too much away, but don't be confused. It's worth watching and even better going in with a clean slate. I will say I don't think it's the modern classic that some have made it out to be, but I did enjoy Mud a lot. McConaughey especially is pretty perfect, heading an enjoyable movie that gets points just because it tries to do something different from the norm and succeeds on just about every level. An easy movie to recommend.
Mud (2012): ***/****