Director: Jeff Nichols; Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Reese Witherspoon, Jacob Lofland, Sarah Paulson, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon; Running time: 130 minutes
When two teenage boys (Sheridan & Lofland) find a boat that’s been left in a tree by a storm, they meet Mud (McConaughey), a mysterious drifter on the run from the law who strikes up a deal with them to help him reunite with the girl he loves (Witherspoon).
Jeff Nichols’ follow up to the impressive Take Shelter is a triumph in many respects. Similar in tone, and set against the alluring backdrop of rural Mississippi, the film swallows us in from the very opening movement which sees our two young leads Ellis and Neckbone heading off on a small, rusting motorboat in the hopes of finding the speedboat that Neckbone’s uncle (Shannon) says has been left up in a tree by a huge flood. Combine such a setting with some truly beautiful and melty cinematography by Adam Stone, and we have the template for something special.
Matthew McConaughey’s career has been something of a punchline for many years, and often with good reason with all that shirtless, generic romcomness, but there’s no denying he’s made a massive step in changing that image recently by not only taking on far more challenging and complex roles, but by performing them really well. Who would have guessed a few years ago that he’d be leading Scorsese and Nolan pictures? He could have just taken the easy road and picked up quick paycheck after paycheck, but instead he decided that the acting and respect was more important, and he did something about it. That’s to be admired and applauded. In this case, as the titular Mud, he continues this resurgence by playing on the ambiguity of the character with a really hypnotic and almost mystical performance, and creates so much empathy towards him despite the narrative allowing as much reason to dislike him as like him. It’s one of those effortless performances that just sells the character.
Yet, as great as McConaughey is, it’s the two young boys who completely steal the show. They are both just fantastic. Despite the title of the thing, it’s their story, and I don’t think the filmmakers could have found two better young actors if they tried. Amazingly, this is only Tye Sheridan’s second shot at acting (his first coming in the divisive The Tree Of Life) and Jacob Lofland’s first, but they both look as though they’ve been doing it for years. Lofland is the comedian, providing the film with the majority of the well-rationed laughs with enviable nonchalance, but Sheridan’s performance in particular, so emotionally-charged and fragile, is what will take your breath away. Both of these boys are ones to watch out for.
Other big names pop up in smaller roles, such as Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon, who previously worked with Nichols in aforementioned Take Shelter. They’re all great, but Michael Shannon is a bit underused. It’s nothing to do with the character being underwritten, I just think if you have someone as great as Shannon you have to use him more.
There’s a whole section of the plot that inspects Mud’s past and what led him to the island, which is fine, and mostly very interesting, but part of that turns into this sort of action movie revenge subplot. While the film is always gripping, it begins to interest me less when it veers off into that vendetta territory – even if it provides a quite thrilling climax. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, I just think the rest of the film has built such a wonderfully powerful character-driven story that by that point I’m not really in the mood to see shooting and explosions – I’m more interested in the people talking.
And if there’s one other squib, it’s the song that plays over the end credits. It tries to do that Tarantino juxtaposing thing where the film ends one way, then a music track kicks in with a completely different tone, but it just doesn’t work in this instance. The final scene, at the risk of giving away spoilers, is relaxing and meditative, but then a strangely hyper song kicks in which frustratingly jolted me out of the moment. It’s no comment on the film itself, it’s just a strange creative choice.
However, back to the good stuff, this is gripping, profound and enigmatic filmmaking. McConaughey continues his career resurgence in alluring fashion while Nichols continues to impress behind camera, but it is two absolutely fantastic performances from young Sheridan and Lofland that make this such an impressive piece of work. Seek it out.