Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Michael Shannon
Being a typecast actor is a concept which many in Hollywood find themselves victim to. Some rise to the challenge with great success, such as Angelina Jolie, who faceted a change of fortune when she moved away from action-led features, to take on engaging roles, with more depth. Others manage a flash-in-the-pan success, before reverting to type with subsequent films (think Nicholas Cage’s monotonous career). With this in mind, I approached ‘Mud’ and the so-called McConnaissance with trepidation. There was no formula in place for Matthew McConaughey, mainly because nobody cared where his career went, so long as he remained topless. With ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ and ‘Killer Joe’, the Texan was taking positive steps towards shedding his typecast, but ‘Mud’ is certainly the film that allowed him a clear break from the rom-com, pretty-boy cage.
The plot to ‘Mud’ is inherently simple, a tale of forbidden love, chance meetings and unlikely friendships, allowing McConaughey’s titular character to resolve the difference and see love prevail. Not much of a stretch for a man who has had ample practice in developing a familiarity with the opposite sex, judging by his back-catalogue of acting roles. With director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) at the helm, this project was certainly in safe hands. ‘Mud’ gives us an insight in to the world of Deep South river folk, in an environment where a sense of community is hard to come by, especially in tough times. After drifting the marshland a while, young Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) encounter a curious vagrant named Mud, with a bashfully vague backstory. With a pretext of domestic abuse and murder, it becomes clear that Mud is a fugitive, evading the consequences of his violent past whilst seeking reconciliation with his sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
Tye Sheridan gives an endearing performance as Ellis, a young boy learning about love, life and loss. Ray McKinnon takes on the role of the typical, hand-to-mouth, redneck father, and offers fantastic tension opposite Sarah Poulsen, who does a stellar job portraying the dissatisfied mother. Reese Witherspoon is an inspired casting choice as Mud’s shot at a perfect life, partly for her girl-next-door looks and partly for the insecurities she exudes throughout the film. The runaway performance is undoubtedly from McConaughey however; the way he seeps in to the love-drunk reasoning is unnoticeable, I wanted to believe that love would ride the punches. In the film, it’s hard to find a flaw in Mud’s plan, yet as things unravel, it becomes apparent that this character has lived a life filled with quick-fix problem solving. McConaughey draws you in and aligns the viewer with young Ellis’ perception, momentarily convincing us that it takes a wild idea to tame a wild girl, that the world we encounter in those dusk-lit adolescent moments is how it will always remain.
The film drops seamlessly in to the lives of those on the river, as they slowly become connected by the arrival of the deluded philosopher cursing their banks. Watching through the eyes of Ellis, it is easy to identify with the love Mud harbors for Juniper, whether it be Ellis experiencing early teen romance or Neckbone finding love and support from his unorthodox uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) or even Ellis’ father’s love for the river. The film trickles on with the pace of a Southern drawl, allowing the optimistic illusions to grow steadily, before the cracks begin to show as each character is stripped of their comforts. A tragic chain of events ensue, culminating in an epic gunfire-heavy crescendo, which left me wondering whether Nichols’ right-hand man had gone rogue and taken the directorial wheel, turning the peaceful drawl into a chaotic screech.
‘Mud’ is a beautifully shot feature; with vignette light bathing every scene with a warm glow, making bell diving for crabs amongst the silt look oddly appealing. The only let down in this film is the finale, where admittedly, all the loose-ends are stuck together, it’s just that they’re banded with plasters and that’s not life. However judging by Matthew McConaughey’s performance, the McConassiance is here to stay, so long as he carries on depicting characters from the Deep South.