Release: Friday, April 26, 2013 (limited)
You can just call him ‘Mud.’
Sporting a tattered white collar tee shirt, ripped jeans and a hairdo that hasn’t been attended to in some time, Matthew McConaughey delivers a performance that might have single-handedly won me over as a fan. His work of the past, while I’d never describe it as ‘bad,’ has just not interested me all that much — even his involvement in the spectacularly inane Tropic Thunder. McConaughey has just been so-so to me for years.
Well, along comes May 2013 and I’ve been proven wrong about at least one of his roles.
In this humble slice of Southern living, McConaughey resorts to the bare necessities as a man on the lam having shot and killed a man somewhere else — presumably not in the near vicinity. He’s managed to survive in the woods with little more than his confidence and a boat that somehow has been lodged high up in a tree. When two youngins, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover the brilliant new ‘treehouse’ on this island that’s pretty far down river from where they both live, they also discover a man living in it.
Mud succeeds on a number of levels. As a character study, it is the most successful. The entire cast turn in performances worthy of an Oscar — the young Sheridan and Lofland are especially enjoyable, possibly even break-outs. The character development that occurs is remarkable and intimately documented, and this is helped by the boys’ precocious nature and the fact that they are suddenly interacting with a homeless man named Mud.
He has stories to tell out the wazoo, and along the way can’t help but try to impart upon the boys some of his rusty (or is that, rustic?) knowledge about getting along in life. His plight — he tells them while rigging up some kind of fishing device — involves meeting up with his long-time girlfriend (or perhaps ex by now, it’s not ever very clear) and escaping the island he’s currently living on and to go live in peace, away from everything. What exactly ‘everything’ means here, you’ll have to wait and find out. While Neckbone and Ellis are keen to listen to this, they continue to dart between trusting and doubting the man’s intentions.
But not only are these three great to watch, the strong silent type presents itself in the form of one Sam Shephard, who plays Tom Blankenship, a widower who lives across the river from Ellis. He’s simply wonderful as the quiet, mysterious neighbor, who turns out to be as much of an enigma as Mud himself.
Reese Witherspoon, while not as involved, turns in a solid performance as the tattered and torn Juniper, the love interest for the estranged Mud.
The film is also intimate in its setting and beautifully shot. Along the gentle curves of the mighty Mississippi we focus in on one particular branch where Neckbone, Ellis and Tom live, and so we never are distracted by the outside world, as it were. The fast-paced and technologically-dependent city life is shrouded by the Southern tincture of Mud. It is even actively avoided.
The crux of the boys’s stories revolves around their current lifestyle. When Ellis’ father is concerned that the government may come and seize their property on the water following an impending divorce, he tells his son that he may have to go live with his mother for awhile, who will now be in town. Ellis hates the idea and is fully opposed to moving off the water. Not only that, but the main conflict of the film (without revealing anything, of course 🙂 ) is coming from out of town. But we only get the part of this that occurs locally, we almost never leave the river. We feel as if we too, are neighborly.
Even if what concerns the boys is still only a subplot to what’s going on with Mud, the directorial treatment that both are given make the stories of Neckbone, Ellis and Mud become so naturally intertwined it was as though footage of real life were unfolding. What ultimately faces Mud will test the mettle of the unlikely friendship that has formed on the muddy banks of the Mississippi. It is a wonderful, fully-focused story that asks important questions about the true meaning of friendship, maturity and doing what’s right.
Recommendation: For the many Matthew McConaughey doubters that are roaming around out there, it’s high time you wander into a theater and check out this film. It’s one of the official selections of the Cannes International Film Festival, one of the best from director Jeff Nichols, and certainly far and away the best featuring McConaughey. I know I’m saying it quite a lot here, but if you don’t go see this film you likely won’t ever understand my gushing. . . .
Running Time: 130 mins.
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