A little over two years ago, Matthew McConaughey came out in The Lincoln Lawyer and started the road to repairing his reputation as an actor. He followed up that good word with other critically appreciated performances in Killer Joe, Bernie and Magic Mike. The man known for being shirtless in romantic comedies has reinvented himself as a leading man with a knack for good material again. When it was announced that he would lead Jeff Nichol's follow-up project to Take Shelter, Mud became a must see picture of 2013.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) don't have much to look forward to in DeWitt, Arkansas, life on the river is dying and they are at the age where girls aren't interested in them. A boat in a tree poses new opportunities, though, something they can lay claim to. The only problem is someone is living in it.
He goes by Mud (McConaughey) and, at the moment, he's living on nothing but beanie weenies. His possessions are few: one gun and a shirt he believes to be lucky. Mud tells the boys he is waiting on a woman to meet him there on the island, and he won't be leaving without her. Something in Mud's voice when he says her name inspires Ellis. His own concept of love is on the ropes as of late and Mud's optimism gives Ellis hope for his own life. Neckbone has his doubts about a man living on an island on his own accord, but Ellis is eager to help him piece together a way to leave with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
The more information comes to light about out Mud, concern grows that Ellis is blind to the danger that the man poses.
On the surface, Mud would seem to be a vehicle for McConaughey, but the focus is placed predominantly on the two boys. Director Jeff Nichols drew excellent performances out of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain with Take Shelter and he continues that trend with Mud. Sheridan and Lofland manage to glide that shaky line of child performances that blends naivete, without going into overly saccharine territory.
McConaughey covers his natural charisma in a thin layer of grime and dirt that obscures his classic movie star good looks, but not his folksy charm. That the audience is constantly guessing just exactly what the man is capable of is a testament to the actor's abilities. The McConassaince has officially come full-circle.
Mud is only Nichol's third film, but he is very quickly becoming a singular voice in a new generation of auteurs. Filming on location in the south gives Nichol a canvas to work from that highlights the, sometimes, obsessive way we live our lives and knowing when to walk away from it.
***1/2 out of ****