You know, I really like this side of Matthew McConaughey. No charming romantic comedy wit, no pretty boy antics, and hell, he keeps his shirt on for almost the entire movie! Almost? Eh, how can the man deprive the ladies what they want? But don’t be fooled by McConaughey’s presence in the film, for Jeff Nichols’ Mud is nothing like a stereotypical role for the actor. This is all part of his “breaking out” period which has seen Matthew take roles you wouldn’t expect in Bernie, Killer Joe, and Dallas Buyers Club (where we’ll see a skeleton-looking version of the typically buff actor), and writer/director Jeff Nichols used him perfectly.
Nichols’ country-twang coming-of-age story follows two young boys named Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) who go exploring on an island in search of a boat which now sits peacefully in a tree after some brutal flooding. Finding the boat, the boys deem it their new clubhouse and hideout, until they realize someone has already beat them to the punch. While leaving, they encounter a man named Mud (McConaughey) who lives alone on the island and tells the boys he’s only there waiting for his true love. Curious and ready for an adventure, the boys do some bartering with Mud and agree to assist in his quest, listening to his endless stories as they spend more and more time with the intriguing outdoorsman. But is Mud really telling the truth, or are the boys buying into a crazy loner’s tales of romance and excitement only because they want to?
Unfortunately, Nichols had a hard time editing out material I assume he loved so much, because the film runs at an intimidating two hours and ten minutes – and boy do you feel it. It’s not to say Mud isn’t brimming with southern-fried charm about life on an Arkansas river, but it could have definitely used a good trim-down of at least twenty minutes to really stomach the story in one sitting. Comparing it to another drawn out drama I saw this year called The Place Beyond The Pines, which was even longer, brilliant performances and emotional storytelling started to become lost in a lingering feeling of impatience and anticipation for a final conclusion, while in Derek Cianfrance’s Pines, those exact shining stars were so good that the over two hour run time blew by.
Let’s analyze why though, because strong lead performances certainly weren’t to blame.
Matthew McConaughey stands out boldly as the title character Mud, a typical personality with questionable motives the whole film, but Matthew is extremely real in the role and works well with both child actors. I loved seeing McConaughey all grimed up as the shifty drifter, and the persona he developed for Mud is one that’s likable but mysterious, keeping audiences always weary through blank stares and mixed messages. He’s enchanting though, like he’s telling these magical fairy tales which draw the young boys in, and there are also scenes where Mud is just like a big kid himself, drawing similarities between the children and old Mud. McConaughey’s performance is both parts sweet and salty country bumpkin, but Mud is definitely a spectacular change of pace that should stand as one of Matthew’s best performances thus far.
Our child actors Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland were a pleasant surprise, as Jeff Nichols found two small talents who were able to lead such a long film with positive results – especially considering Sheridan only had The Tree Of Life to his name and Lofland was making his feature film debut. No worries though, as these kids keep as genuine and mischievous as two pre-teens should be, again really hitting on that coming-of-age architecture that teaches numerous life lessons and lets the boys grow before our eyes.
Lofland’s character Neckbone is more the comedic relief, living with his oyster-diving uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) who teaches him his own ways of life. You can see Galen’s influence rubbing off on Neckbone in a way, suggesting he’ll grow up to be a little shit, but this is one of those films where everyone learns a lesson, even Galen. It’s a touching little bit about being the cool Uncle versus a caretaking father figure.
Ellis on the other hand you can see is very respectful, very serious, and very moral – raised by his parents Senior (Ray McKinnon) and Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson). It’s much easier to see how easily Ellis is influence by his family dynamic, which we see Sheridan’s character escape by staying active with Mud’s requests in an attempt to put unhappy thoughts behind him like any child would. Sheridan perfectly captures that feeling of adolescent confidence where you feel way too big for your britches, strutting around trying to make yourself seem years beyond your actual maturity level – until that one catastrophic event that brings you back down to your real age-level. It’s a nostalgic performance I found myself reflecting fondly on, putting myself in Ellis’ shoes, which was a wonderful accomplishment for young Tye Sheridan – a child actor with a future brighter than the Carolina sun (I don’t care if that’s a saying, it is now).
The problem with Mud‘s lagging feeling really comes down to a solid story by Nichols, but there’s nothing especially groundbreaking about it. It’s quite obvious where the journey of our “heroes” will end up, we can gather the whole storybook ending might be in sight, each character’s personality is established time and time again with the same tropes, but it’s hard to avoid standing up and yelling “Get to the point!” Mud is entertaining, heartfelt storytelling about adolescent exploration and personal discovery, conveyed through admirable performances – but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to keep it simple.
So while acting is at primo quality, overall execution stumbles by drawing out an easily predictable and cliched coming-of-age tale which becomes a more daunting watch than I would have liked. Mud has many strong points, and Jeff Nichols certainly proves himself an adept filmmaker, again, but I couldn’t help but feel I’d just chewed on a super-tough piece of beef jerky for the last two hours. It starts out tasty, some creative spices kick in, but at the end you’re just left with a dried out, leathery husk you just wish could have been served in a more manageable fashion.
I so wish I had the "Wrap It Up" box from Chappelle's Show, because if I could have hit it around the hour and forty five minute mark during Mud, it would have added another star onto my review.