The Matthew McConaughey tour continues.
McConaughey won the Best Actor Oscar for his work in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013) earlier this year, and I’ve been going back revisiting some of the performances by McConaughey leading up to his Oscar winning role. Last time out, I reviewed THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011), a decent drama in which McConaughey portrayed a smooth talking defense lawyer who takes on a client shiftier than he is.
Today we look at MUD (2012), a film that in many ways is more satisfying than THE LINCOLN LAWYER. It’s a slice of life drama about two boys who live on the Mississippi River in Arkansas who strike up a friendship with a man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living in the woods because he’s wanted by both the police and a group of vigilantes who want him dead.
Fourteen year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and fourteen year-old Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are best friends. Life is hard on the both of them. Ellis’ parents are getting a divorce, and Neckbone lives with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), who’s a nice enough guy, but as a fisherman and a womanizer, he’s hardly the ideal parent figure for the boy.
So when Ellis and Neckbone meet the curious and very dynamic Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living in the woods on an island on the Mississippi River, they quickly grow attached to him and believe the things he tells them. When Ellis learns that the police are looking for Mud, and that he’s wanted for murder, he doesn’t turn in his new friend. Mud tells the boys that he only killed the man because he was protecting his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
But Mud is also being hunted by a group of vigilantes, led by the father of the man Mud killed. The father, King (Joe Don Baker) is determined to see Mud dead. Needing extra help, Mud sends the boys to meet with old Tom (Sam Shepard), a strange man who lives on the river across from Ellis, a man who Mud describes as both his surrogate father and a former hit man for the CIA. Tom warns the boys to keep away from Mud, but they are too attached to Mud to heed the old man’s advice, putting them in harm’s way when King’s men close in for the kill.
MUD is an entertaining movie that is driven along by its topnotch acting performances. Matthew McConaughey is perfect as Mud, a charismatic loner who is head over heels in love with Juniper and refuses to see that she might be more trouble than she’s worth. Mud’s personality easily wins over the boys, and I found it completely believable that these two fourteen year-olds would be so awestruck by Mud and his stories. McConaughey makes this larger than life character credible and real, especially late in the movie when it becomes clear that he is a flawed and troubled man.
Even better than McConaughey are Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone.
These two young actors are such naturals it seems like they’ve been best friends living on the Mississippi River forever. As much as I liked McConaughey in this film, I liked these two even more.
Sheridan is particularly good, especially in the subplot where he follows through on his crush on a high school girl. The painful scenes with his parents, as they deal with divorce, are also particularly well done. That being said, Lofland is just as good as Sheridan, and he has some of the best lines in the film, and he delivers them without missing a beat.
Sam Shepard also makes his presence known as Tom, the man with the mysterious past, who Mud sees as his father figure. Shepard makes the most of his limited screen time. Bonnie Sturdivant stands out as May Pearl, the high-schooler who pays Ellis some attention at first but then pretty much tells him to get lost because he’s too young for her. Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson are also very good as Ellis’ parents.
Less effective is Reese Witherspoon as the love of Mud’s life, Juniper. Witherspoon is fine, but it’s a straightforward role, as Juniper is bad news from the get-go, and she doesn’t really change all that much. Joe Don Baker looks solemn and gruff but that’s about it in his small role as King, the man who’s spending lots of money to have Mud killed.
MUD was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, and he scores high on both fronts. MUD is a beautifully photographed film, and Nichols really captures the flavor of life on the Mississippi River. In addition, Mud’s island is a magical place to which Ellis and Neckbone are more than happy to escape.
The story succeeds on multiple levels. It works as a friendship story between Mud and the boys, and it’s also a coming of age tale about Ellis. He grows up during this movie, as he has to deal with his parents separating, and the prospect that because of the separation he may be forced to leave his house on the river, which would sever him from the only life he had ever known. He experiences his first crush on the older Mary Lee, and it’s through this relationship that he learns firsthand about rejection.
Mud’s story is also multifaceted. He’s in love with Juniper and is driven to do whatever it takes to make things work with her. He’s also on the run and has to live as a fugitive from both the police and the vigilantes. And once he involves Ellis and Neckbone, he realizes that he has put the boys’ lives in danger. Not known for taking personal responsibility, Mud finds himself having to step up to protect his two young friends.
MUD is the story of broken dreams and what people do when their dreams have been shattered. Mud takes refuge on an island and hunkers down, refusing to give up. Ellis’ dad grows bitter and warns his son about women, and Ellis looks to an energetic and optimistic stranger.
With his world crumbling around him, Ellis is desperate to find someone to believe in, and for right or wrong, that someone is Mud.