Opens Fri., April 26 at Meridian, Sundance Cinemas, and Thornton Place. Rated PG-13. 130 minutes.
It takes Matthew McConaughey a whole 95 minutes to remove his shirt in Mud, which is surely some kind of record. But to his credit, the Texas hunk has been enjoying a strong mid-career resurgence with Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Bernie, and Magic Mike. Ben Affleck may have the Oscar for Argo, but McConaughey’s redemption has been no less emphatic. It helps that he’s been working with good directors, like Jeff Nichols, whose Take Shelter was one of 2011’s best movies.
Mud is Nichols’ third film to be set in rural Arkansas, this time on a sleepy estuary of the Mississippi. McConaughey’s character, known only as Mud, is a ne’er-do-well native, a fugitive and teller of tall tales, hiding on a sandbar island. His improbable refuge—a boat lifted into the trees by a recent flood—is discovered by two young teens who naturally idolize this tattooed, charismatic outcast. Mud has a neat treehouse; Mud has a hot girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) and a gun; Mud is every 14-year-old’s idea of cool, like some dude from a cigarette ad come to life.
Back home, reality is more complicated for Ellis (Tye Sheridan, one of Brad Pitt’s boys in The Tree of Life). Mud is his story, not Mud’s, as Ellis watches his parents’ marriage dissolve, has his first kiss, and begins to question the story Mud is feeding him. These scenes on shore feel undeniably real, grounded in the strip malls and fishing shacks of DeWitt, Arkansas (where Nichols has kin). There’s not much money, little beauty, a sense of diminished horizons. The locals shop at Piggly Wiggly because even Walmart is too expensive. The divide between magical isle and prosaic mainland is intentional, since Nichols clearly means for Ellis’ coming-of-age to coincide with his disillusionment with Mud. Still, the domestic scenes are a bit too familiar, and McConaughey’s romantic bandit can seem like he’s in a different movie, playing for an audience of two—Ellis and his pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland).
Though a little too long and leisurely—shall we just say Southern?—for my taste, Mud is very well crafted and acted. (Look for Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, and Joe Don Baker in significant supporting roles.) It’s a big step up from indie-dom for Nichols, but it’s also a step back to the classical. I mean this respectfully, but Mud feels like it could’ve been made in early-’60s Hollywood, written by Horton Foote. There are traces of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird—not because Nichols is borrowing, but because he’s plainly plowing that vein of Americana.
What finally wins you over, though, is the naturalistic, dirt-bikin’, boat-thievin’ freedom of Ellis and Neckbone, their rapport and worship of the grandstanding outlaw Mud, and the way he feeds on their adulation—just enough, possibly, to become a better man. Snaggle-toothed and wild-eyed, Mud is drunk on his own mythology of snakes, magical shirts, and boots with crosses in their heels to ward off the devil. He’s a guy in love with his own image, but aware it’s only an act; and I can’t help but wonder if McConaughey’s new depth as an actor—at age 43—carries some of that same self-assessment. It’s not just Ellis who’s growing up here