When judging a Matthew McConaughey movie, one must first judge his shirt. Is it cotton? Is it plaid? Hell, is it even on? Chances are, if his upper body is out and presenting itself to the Southern-fried gods, the movie isn’t going to be that good. It’s just a fact of life and has become his go-to “gimmick” since his days Dazed and Confused days, and we really haven’t seen a lot else from the man until more recently. It wasn’t until last year, deemed “The Year of McConaughey” that we really got a peek at the talent even further underneath the shirt, and it’s become time that we really need to appreciate the man and his acting ability.
In Mud, McConaughey plays a drifter who finds a boat in a tree on an island in the Mississippi River. Bad men are after him and he’s patiently waiting for the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to give him word that it’s time for them to get out of town together. As he scavenges and idly sits by, two young boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover the boat and plan on taking it as their own. Unfortunately for them, it’s Mud’s home, and he’s not willing to give it up that easily. So Mud makes a promise with the boys. If they can feed him and help him with Operation: Juniper, he’ll give them a gun.
Driven by its performances, Mud is a small-budget, beautiful, little masterpiece. McConaughey delivers, perhaps, his best performance to date, and seeing him struggle both mentally, physically, and emotionally really pulls at your heart strings. Mud is a simple man, yet his love for Juniper is true, and as misguided as he may be, it’s hard not to sympathize for the man. McConaughey fits the role perfectly, and given prosthetic teeth, a magic shirt, and enough backwater wisdom and the fear of God inside him, he completely becomes Mud.
Surprisingly enough, McConaughey is not the only standout performance. Tye Sheridan, who was introduced to the world in Tree of Life, gives one of the best performances I have seen from a kid under 15 in a very long time, and as the focus of the story is the coming-of-age of Ellis and Neckbone, he plays a vital role in the film. He’s a courageous little man with an even bigger heart than Mud’s, and seeing him try to be the hero of both his own life and that of his new found drifter friend is both honest and admirable.
Along with the performances, Mud is also a gorgeous film to look at. The director, Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), has continued his streak of winning films and his style and reverence towards Small Town, USA, is building on his filmography beautifully. Many of the visuals in Mud can be compared to that of Terrence Malick’s and Nichols manages to capture the beauty in the smallest of details. This helps Nichols turn his settings into more than just a place he films but instead an entirely new character in his movies. Dewitt, AR becomes a place rich with life and characters, and you’re left wanting to explore every inch of the small, back-water town with Ellis and Neckbone.
Mud is easily one of the best movies I have seen this year and probably one of the best I will see in 2013. Packed with its own Southern mythologies and incredible performances, Mud packs its own mysteries and romances and helps remind us that a character-driven drama is much more effective than any high-budget blockbuster. The film is also the pinnacle of McConaughey’s career and if the man continues down this path, there will be only good things ahead. And as far as I am concerned, that means that everything is alright (alright).
The Good: Nichols’ camerawork and love for the South is just as romantic as the relationships in the film
The Better: The performances from the young cast and the focus on youth loosing its innocence, as any coming-of-age film does
The Mud: McConaughey at his finest, with his shirt on for 95% of the film (the reason it’s off actually makes sense to the plot)