Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Premise: Set in rural Arkansas, a pair of teenage boys discover a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) living on a remote island. The stranger recruits the boys to help him repair an abandoned boat and escape local authorities and a gang of bounty hunters.
What Works: Mud is a great combination of tight storytelling with great characterization and it succeeds due to a smart script and some noteworthy acting contributions from its cast. In the past few years Matthew McConaughey has given exceptional performances in several notable projects such as Bernie, Magic Mike, and Tropic Thunder in which he has reminded audiences of what a terrific actor he can be. One of the things Matthew McConaughey does well is to project a combination of charisma and implied threat. This is not a talent that McConaughey has been able to use very often; perhaps only in the largely forgotten The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation and last year’s Killer Joe has the actor been able to display this aspect of his skillset. But as the title character in Mud, McConaughey is able to do this and unlike his turns in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Killer Joe he tempers the outrageousness, making his character less manic and much more empathetic. Mud is a fugitive with a violent past and McConaughey allows the character to be vulnerable while keeping him mysterious enough to maintain a vague aura of menace. But as good as McConaughey is, his role is a supporting part and Mud is led by teenage actors Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone, the two boys who assist the title character in his escape attempt. The performances by these two young men are terrific. One of the challenges of including young characters in movies is getting the tone right. In too many cases teenage characters seem like they were written by older screenwriters attempting—and failing—to imitate how they think young people speak and behave. But Mud has a great deal of authenticity, giving the boys a credible intelligence while also allowing them to possess the naivety unique to youth. Actors Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland build upon the authenticity of the script and because of their performances Mud is comparable to movies like The Outsiders and Stand By Me. The credibility of the children extends to the rest of the supporting cast and Mud is especially notable in the way it deals with rural characters. Hollywood productions tend to belittle people living in the countryside or subsisting in poverty. The filmmakers of Mud find the humanity in characters who would ordinarily be dismissed as white trash and the movie is at turns heartbreaking, funny, and thrilling.
What Doesn’t: The one major disappointment of Mud is its disuse of two key supporting characters. The first is Reese Witherspoon as Mud’s girlfriend. Witherspoon does fine in the role but the film does not give her much to do except mope around a hotel room. Late in the story she behaves in ways that suggest there is much more to her and to her relationship with Mud than the film reveals but this is not explored. The other underused character is the leader of the posse planning to kill Mud played by Joe Don Baker. It is revealed that he has personal reasons for wanting to kill the title character but he never comes into direct conflict with anyone and the deeper aspects of his motivation are left vague. These omissions make sense, since Mud is ultimately the story of the boys and their disillusionment but because these roles feature recognizable actors it creates the expectation that they will be showcased more prominently.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes.
Bottom Line: Mud is a very impressive piece of filmmaking. It is one of those rare movies in which otherwise marginalized characters are given authentic life on the screen and the film tells a story that is compelling and allows its actors to give tremendous performances.
Episode: #465 (November 10, 2013)