With “Mud,” writer and director Jeff Nichols has done the impossible by making me a believer in Matthew McConaughey’s acting ability.
McConaughey was already equipped with a Greek statue physique and a tan that could put a photo touch-up artist out of business. What kept him on-par with the rest of us mortals was his inability to choose a good script (see “Surfer, Dude,” “Fool’s Gold,” “Failure to Launch,” “Two for the Money,” “Sahara,” etc.). But now, with his performance in “Mud,” he’s launched himself into the acting stratosphere, and it would not surprise me in the slightest to see his name among this year’s Oscar nominations for Best Actor.
Nichols’ movie centers around two 14-year-old best friends named Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who frequent an island void of human interference and save a boat that’s been lodged in a tree following a likely Mississippi flood. The boys, reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, explore the boat, thinking it abandoned, but learn through the discovery of fresh food that it’s being inhabited by a man named Mud (McConaughey). Mud is a particular person, allowing the boys to refer to him as “homeless,” because he is, or as a “hobo” due to his traveling but never a bum, because he is diligently at work.
Mud is at work trying to rescue Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who appears like a long-legged blonde ghost in the small Mississippi neighborhood of Ellis and Neckbone. Mud, armed with only a .45 pistol and a lucky shirt blessed by Native Americans, warns that bounty hunters are on his tail and that time is of the essence. Skeptical but intrigued at the far-fetched nature of Mud’s story, the dynamic duo of Ellis and Neckbone agree to help Mud reunite with his love and escape down the river.
The outline of the movie is pretty basic, but Nichols does a fantastic job of burying rich depth in the sediment of his story and weaving clever dichotomies through every minute decision. At first glance, we have two kids spellbound by an adult who fall under his leadership and direction. But who’s really playing the role of master and apprentice when the youngsters are doing the grunt work while the adult is busy clinging to a fantastical fairy-tale reality? What is the movie saying about what we as writers of our own stories or viewers with money to spend on watching movies truly value? What are the consequences of following a romantic philosophy as opposed to one rooted in reality?
Those questions, I believe, segue perfectly into my new appreciation for McConaughey’s acting ability. While the entire cast was great (including the ambiguously-defined retiree/assassin Tom Blankenship played by Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon’s cameo as Galen, Neckbone’s caretaker), McConaughey was a perfect choice for the role of Mud because his expressions captured what was at stake in every frame. The role had extra meaning for someone like McConaughey because in my opinion, McConaughey the man had his life defined by poorly executed fiction.
McConaughey, through his acting, was defending both Mud’s actions as well as his own. Maybe some of Mud’s or McConaughey’s justifications don’t make sense to us, but damn it, they got us here, and he’s going to fight to make the best of his mistakes.
Do yourself a favor and allow Nichols’ to sweep you away. Marvel at the way his camera finds both the beauty and the ferocious power of the Mississippi as it rushes or crawls like time in the background.
Find yourself examining how you choose to live your life and who you choose to surround yourself. Find yourself examining the stories you tell yourself to keep yourself motivated. Find yourself with a new respect for Matthew McConaughey.
4 out of 4 stars