Great performances fuel riverside coming-of-age tale ‘Mud’
This is what rehab looks like. No, not from drugs and alcohol; this kind of rehab happens when an actor known for a certain level or genre of work has the moxie to reinvent himself onscreen through some smart role choices. The actor here is Matthew McConaughey, and in Jeff Nicholls’ edgy, hypnotic Mud, he breaks out of B-grade action movies and rom-com purgatory in a big way.
The tall tale that is Mud simmers with danger, disillusion, humor, and heart, and McConaughey’s performance, smack in the center, radiates all of the above.
Imagine the rite-of-passage lyricism of Huckleberry Finn, laced with the Southern Gothic menace of Night of the Hunter, and you’ll have an idea of the general tone of Mud. The setting is contemporary, but it’s a timeless story of two 14-year-old boys growing up on the banks of the Mississippi River in rural Arkansas. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) lives on ramshackle houseboat with his taciturn fisherman dad (Ray McKinnon) and his restless mom (Sarah Paulson), who are going through a rough patch in their marriage. His buddy, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), lives in a trailer nearby, under the sporadic supervision of his uncle, Galen (Michael Shannon), who ekes out a living diving for oysters.
Ellis and Neck don’t play video games or text. (Although they do make use of an ancient, scavenged walkie-talkie.) They spend their time like generations of boys before them, out on the river in a beat-up motor boat looking for adventure. One day, they spy a derelict boat high in the branches of a tree on a tiny island in the river, stranded there by some bygone flood. When they go to investigate, they discover the boat and the island are occupied by a hungry, disheveled stranger (McConaughey) with a snake tattoo down one arm, a pistol stuck in the back of his jeans, and a line of down-home patter. He takes a shine to the boys and tells them to call him “Mud.”
Like a character out of folklore, Mud is larger than life. He lights bonfires for good luck and wears a wolf’s tooth sewn into his shirt for “protection.” He spins improbable yarns about killing a man in Texas and having a price on his head, all for the love of a beautiful blonde named Juniper who, he says, is going to run away with him. The curious boys don’t believe half of what he says, but they smuggle food and supplies out to him anyway.
But when Mud sends Ellis with a message to Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), a cranky old coot on the houseboat next door, Tom responds. And when Juniper herself (Reese Witherspoon) shows up in the local Piggly Wiggly—followed in short order by a fleet of State Troopers, and a far more sinister posse of slick bounty hunters—Ellis and Neck are in for a much bigger adventure than they bargained for.
Characterization counts for everything, beginning with the charismatic Mud; McConaughey maintains the tension between dangerous and fascinating, while also making the character convincingly lovelorn and vulnerable. It’s a lovely piece of work. The two boy actors are astonishingly good, as well, while the growing bond between Mud and Ellis carries the movie. With his parents’ marriage crumbling, Ellis clings to Mud’s nutball romanticism as proof that true love not only exists, but will triumph against all odds.
Filmmaker Nicholls also infuses the movie with a shrewd sense of place, from the boys’ wild, uninhabited island playground to the bleak, anonymous strip malls, boat lots, and taco joints on the road through town. (Neck, a genius tinkerer, has built a home-made motor bike out of spare parts for them to bomb around on.)
But most propulsive is the sense of an evolving narrative as each character eventually comes forward to tell his or her side of the story. Facts and relationships may not always be as clear-cut or simple as Ellis wants to believe, but there turns out to be a grain of truth even in the wildest tales. And in the end, it’s proven without doubt that deep, powerful love does exist—not in the context Ellis expects, perhaps, but in a way to bring this entertaining yarn of fathers, sons, and surrogates to its satisfying conclusion.
★★★1/2 (out of four)
With Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Reese Witherspoon, and Sam Shepard. Written and directed by Jeff Nicholls. A Lionsgate/ Roadside Attractions release. Rated PG-13. 130 minutes.