daniel cohen unearths a summer gem …
Plot: Two kids from Arkansas venture out to a small island and discover a man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living in a boat. One of the kids in particular, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), starts developing a close bond with him. As they try and re-unite Mud with his life long love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), Mud’s mysterious and shady past is slowly revealed.
Relying on kid actors to carry a majority of your movie can be a scary thing. Are you going to get Haley Joel Osment, or the dreaded Jake Lloyd? As I watch Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland play the two leads (Ellis and Neckbone respectfully), I’m happy to say it’s the Osment camp. And while this movie is heavily focused on them, the performance I have to start off with is Matthew McConaughey, an actor I had no idea was capable of this caliber of acting.
When McConaughey was recently cast as the lead in director Christopher Nolan’s next film, Interstellar, it was a real head scratcher. But now I know why … he must have seen Mud. McConaughey has gotten a lot of crap over his career, but now I realize he must of had the worst agent in the history of Hollywood, because he gives one hell of a performance here as the title character. He plays the perfect blend of extremely likable, but still keeps that small aura of mystery around him. Is this a good guy? What’s the deal with his past? Why the hell is he living on a boat up in a tree? These are questions you want answered immediately, and it’s because of McConaughey’s performance. From the first second he comes on screen, McConaughey is instantly captivating. And the director (Jeff Nichols) does a great job of giving him this almost mystical quality. He doesn’t get as much screen time as you would expect, and while McConaughey gives the best performance of the film, he doesn’t steal the show. The two kids he interacts with are right up there.
This is really some of the best kid acting I’ve seen in a while. While the film is called Mud, this is really Ellis’ story. Tye Sheridan is fantastic, and it also helps that the character is written exceptionally well. This is one of those protagonists you really like from the start. Ellis is tough, intuitive, smart, works hard, and he certainly doesn’t take any shit from anyone, expressing a ‘punch first, ask questions later’ type mentality. The movie throws a lot at him, including the impending separation of his parents. I really enjoyed the scenes between him and his dad Senior, played well by Ray McKinnon. Senior is definitely a flawed character, but you can certainly tell he cares very much for his son.
But the real soul of this movie is the relationship between Ellis and Mud. Mud comes to Ellis at just the right time. Ellis is that naive 14 year-old who wants to believe in the idea of true love. As he sees his parents’ marriage coming to an end, Mud gives him that sense of hope, as Mud’s primary goal is to re-unite with Juniper (Witherspoon), his childhood sweetheart. Ellis believes Mud is genuine, and is inspired by his ambition. But the real tension of this movie is when Mud and Juniper’s back story is revealed. And whenever a new piece of information comes to light, the audience knows this dream becomes less of a reality, but it just makes Ellis believe in it more and more. And as more is revealed about Mud’s past, it really questions the audience as to whether we should even back Mud. He gets these kids involved in some real risky situations. Seriously, Ellis and Neckbone really do spit in the face of that whole ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ seminar.
Speaking of Neckbone, that’s Ellis’ best friend, played by Jacob Lofland. Lofland is equally good, providing most of the comic relief. We like him for a lot of the same reasons we like Ellis, but he’s also just funnier. They give this kid a lot of great one-liners to work with. Their friendship is one of the highlights of the film.
Aside from the main players, the film offers no shortage of great supporting characters. Sam Shepard plays Tom, a quiet old man who seemingly doesn’t do much, but is given much more weight after the film reveals his heartbreaking back story. He’s also an absolute bad ass. Michael Shannon has a nice little part as Neckbone’s Uncle, Galen. He’s hilarious, albeit only in a few scenes. We’re going to see a lot more Michael Shannon once he blows up in Man of Steel. Reese Witherspoon is also solid, bringing her usual gravitas to every role she does.
But aside from the performances, I really have to compliment director Jeff Nichols, who also helmed 2011’s Take Shelter. In addition to telling a truly gripping story, he really catches the audience off guard several times. I literally jumped in my seat twice. There’s one moment in particular where the entire audience gasps because they thought something really bad was going to happen, but he ends up doing something entirely different.
Nichols also wrote this, and the script is equally as good. The whole movie you are salivating for when Mud and Juniper are finally going to re-unite. What Nichols decides to do with them though is so unexpected and poignant, I’ve got to give him huge props. I’m very interested to see what this guy does next, as he is clearly a detailed filmmaker.
I don’t have a ton of criticisms other then it drags a tad, and the sub-plot between Ellis and his sort of girlfriend May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) didn’t really work for me. I see how it relates to Ellis’ overall belief in true love and naivety, but it just felt awkward and clunky.
If you want more than anything to break away from the Iron Man/Star Trek/Fast and Furious summer melee, then this is your movie. This film is contemplative, funny, sad, and at times, a little uneasy. It’s got an absolutely gut-wrenching third act climax that had the whole audience sweating. It’s also got a powerful last image that I’m always a sucker for, and the best use of the Beach Boy’s ‘Help Me, Rhonda’ I’ve ever seen. I can’t speak enough about the performances though. If McConaughey had more screen time, he’d be getting an Oscar nomination. But it wouldn’t surprise me if this movie does get remembered come award season.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10 (Really Great)