“MUD” My rating: A- (Opens April 26 at the Leawood, Barrywoods 24, Studio 30, Cinemark Palace)
130 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
Damn that Matthew McConaughey.
Just when you’re comfortable writing him off as a lazy, pretty-boy romcom hack, he decides to start really acting.
Over the last couple of years he’s blown off his easy-going leading-man ways and tackled edgy, multifaceted characters in films like “Bernie,” “Killer Joe,” “The Paperboy” and “Magic Mike.” Even if you don’t like the movies, you’ve gotta love what McConaughey is accomplishing here.
That great run continues with “Mud,” the third feature from Arkansas filmmaker Jeff Nichols.
Nichols writes and directs superlative dramas about working-class folk. His first two efforts — “Shotgun Stories” (about a modern day feud between the brothers of two families) and “Take Shelter” (with Michael Shannon as a disaster-obsessed man who builds an elaborate tornado shelter in his yard) – achieved a sort of gritty poetry.
“Mud” is just as powerful. Maybe moreso.
Unfolding along the waterways of the Arkansas Delta, “Mud” centers on 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best bud, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland).
Both kids survive on what their families can scratch out of the river. Ellis helps his father catch and sell crawdads, fish, and turtles. Neck, an orphan, lives in a seedy mobile home court with a slacker uncle (Michael Shannon) who harvests fresh-water oysters with a crude homemade diving helmet.
When they’re not working, the two boys roam the bayous, which is where they discover a boat deposited in the treetops of a remote island by recent flooding. They’re ready to claim the wreck as their own private aerie when they discover that it is inhabited by a scruffy, loquacious fellow with a .45 automatic tucked in the back of his pants.
His name is Mud (McConaughey) and while that heavy-duty heat he’s packing should make him threatening, he’s actually kind of friendly –even a bit childlike. Mud says he’s waiting for his true love, Juniper, who will join him on the island. Then they’ll sail off together on the salvaged boat.
Seduced by the romance of Mud’s story, Ellis agrees to bring him supplies. Neck smells something fishy but – with the promise of getting Mud’s pistol — joins Ellis in lowering the boat and making it riverworthy.
What ensues is a sort of white trash tragedy. It soon becomes clear that Mud is a fugitive not only from the law, but from a gang of thugs hired by a family with a serious grudge (Joe Don Baker plays the vengeful patriarch).
Spotting Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) in town, Ellis tries to sneak her out to the island for what he is sure will be a rapturous reunion of lovers. But he’s only 14, after all, and what looks wonderfully romantic to a kid seems far less rosy when viewed through the lens of adult experience.
The great thing about “Mud” is that every time we think we’ve got a take on a character, Nichols throws in a new wrinkle that forces us to reconsider. This is the case with virtually all the characters, but especially with Mcconaughey’s fugitive, who by turns seems innocent, idealistic, passionate, naïve and vaguely dangerous. Yet it’s not a schizophrenic performance — he pulls all this off with a sense of wholeness that is quite remarkable. It may be his finest hour as an actor.
And the boys’ efforts to reunite Mud and his beloved Juniper are only one of the film’s many threads. Ellis – portrayed by Sheridan with a quiet intensity and youthful uncertainty that is heartbreaking — is terrified by the impending breakup of his parents (Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon). That may be why he throws himself so wholeheartedly into his doomed courtship of an unattainable high school girl and is desperate get Mud and Juniper back together.
Thus “Mud” becomes a touching study of a child groping his way toward adulthood.
And as if this weren’t enough, Nichols packs his film with other themes and literary allusions. For instance, it’s just about impossible not to see Ellis and Neckbone as modern incarnations of Mark Twain’s Tom and Huckleberry. And in its final passages the picture becomes a good example of gangland drama, with a big action set piece featuring Sam Shepard as an old river rat whose marksmanship will come in handy.
Plus there’s the film’s technical accomplishments, especially the way the art direction establishes a timeless feel. Presumably these events are happening now, but for these characters cell phones and digital TVs (or any television at all) belong to a bigger, more privileged outside world. It’s an environment where kids can pretty much grow up wild. Or pure, if that’s the way you want to view it.
Bottom line: “Mud” is a film of immense depth, complexity and feeling, one that elevates Jeff Nichols (he’s only in his mid-30’s, for crying out loud) into the first ranks of American filmmakers.
| Robert W. Butler