I have avoided the work of Matthew McConaughey in the past, his associations with romantic comedies have put me off to the point that when I see his name attached I tend not to show any interest at all, but as his career has since taken an expected twist, I was intrigued to see ‘Mud’, a story in which two young boys meet a dishevelled man living in a boat come tree house on a deserted island on the Mississippi Delta. Citing Mark Twain as an influence, writer director Jeff Nichols attempts the great American film where adolescent intrigue and curiosity steer the teenage friends Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) to meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey) befriending and assisting him, despite the ‘wanted’ posters in town bearing his face.
Beginning as a Stand By Me-esque adventure tale, Ellis hopping on the back of Neckbone’s dirt bike for a summer of fun, romance at the forefront of the formers pubescent mind, and ‘titties’ on the agenda of the latter. The friendship is magnificent to watch, capturing the humour to a tee but with a genuine essence, and Ellis’ idealistic but naive notion of love holds the narrative together. Though the light-heartedness is short-lived, hinted at early on with symbolic shots of spiders and eerie suspenseful score. The cinematography sweeps us off to the ominous island, crucifixes in the sand leading to the suspenseful encounter with Mud, who with his dirty exterior and scraggy features earns his title. Striking a bond with Mud, going back to the island alone providing food and drink, Ellis escapes from his home life difficulties. His parents are in a turbulent marriage, he has an unrequited crush on the ‘popular one’ in the neighbourhood, and when Mud recounts his quest for happiness with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) it triggers his true-love-must-prevail attitude which pits him against his family and the criminals searching for Mud.
The performances in Mud are of the highest order throughout, with McConaughey delivering straight from the top drawer. Initially coming across as arrogant, and perhaps a little over confident, as his character develops, his past unravelling, the portrayal continually keeps up, climaxing with a gripping finale. Unwilling to be outshone completely are the two youngsters, Sheridan and Lofland, who are outstanding. It is the norm for these kind of performances to either seem overplayed, or rather flat but the two get the balance spot on, and I think their chemistry helps boost one another, both giving heartfelt, and at times hilarious. With Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon and usual Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon filling the back seat in supporting roles, the towering stature of the cast is undeniable. Shannon, for me, was a little underused, as I really enjoyed him in a less serious role, taking the part of Neckbone’s deep sea diving, womanising uncle, offering words of wisdom. It was also very interesting to see Witherspoon used with a different approach, a darker, beautifully trashy side shown, clashing with her customary ‘girl next door’ depictions.
The only criticism I have of Mud is that it overstays its welcome somewhat, the pace dragging along through certain segments, the two hour ten minutes running time perhaps could have benefited with twenty or so shaved the sides. Despite lagging through the domestic scenes in Ellis’ broken home, which I felt were quite heavy handed, the script is at its best during the interchanges between Ellis, Neckbone and Mud, the dialogue exceptional with acting to boot, and it is the connections between these characters and between these three which are long lasting and pull you in, immersing us in their adventure.