Matthew McConaughey is an easy punchline. Coming off like a walking, talking stoner caricature, doing ludicrous things like getting caught playing the Bongos naked or being shirtless 99.9999% of the time, he may as well be a lazily written movie star parody in Californication. After establishing credibility in Indie movies like Dazed and Confused, and even mainstream fare like A Time To Kill, he had the world at his feet, he had the natural charisma and effortlessly magnatizing screen presence that comes about once every ten years. Oscars and superstardom were probably his if he wanted them. Instead, McConaughey did what most movies stars wish they had the balls to do, which is spend a decade taking the highest pay-cheque offered him at any point, no matter how terrible the movie, or how clearly disinterested he was in the project. McConaughey is such a natural movie star that he could give about 30% and still be the best thing about The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy In 10 days, Failure To Launch, Fool’s Gold or Ghosts Of Girlfriends past.
B movie romantic comedies were where he lived, so surely this guy should have gone by now. But he didn’t go. And in the last couple of years, he has shown that for him, it was essentially a matter of deciding he could be arsed to become one of the most interesting actors on the planet. Last year he could have been nominated for two Oscars, either his scene-stealing, movie saving turn in Killer Joe, or his barnstorming supporting performance in the otherwise quite leaden Magic Mike. He is rumored to be the male lead in the new Christopher Nolan movie, and may well again be in Oscar contention this year for his Role in Scorcese’s The Wolf on Wall Street. Mud, a small, intimate, southern Gothic indie, is probably the lowest profile release of what was a remarkable 2012 for McConuaghey, but it itself a reminder of his range and capabilities.
Mud is the story of two kids, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who live in the deep south, in an isolated river community. One fateful day ,the two boys go exploring on a small uninhabited island and discover a boat lodged in a tree canopy. Before they can celebrate their find however they discover that ‘Mud’ (McConaughey) is living in it. The boys, particularly Ellis, form a friendship with the rough looking stranger, but he is not all he seems and soon they find themselves roped into his desperate situation, which without giving too much away all revolves around Mud’s one and only Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
Mud is an intriguing movie, but it’s also a deeply uneven one. There’s a meandering tone and the slight feeling like another draft of the script to get to the root of what the film is really about wouldn’t have gone a miss. Its got a lot of characters it wants to serve, stories it wants to tell within what is, on the face of it, quite a simple set-up. Not all of them get due service enough to make them compelling, and in turn it means a couple of elements of the story become dead ends and time sucks. For example, the story about Ellis’s relationship with his parents as they are set divorce and lose their home works very well. Ray McKinnon gives a very good performance as his Dad and that carries a decent emotional impact. The noir storyline with Juniper however, is scripted in very broad terms with both the plot and the relationship between Mud and Juniper given very little detail or specificity. And that means it becomes a fairly bland space-filler in a film clearly more interested in other things. It leaves Witherspoon on an island in a role that she really can’t do anything with, and to be honest the whole thing seems to just exist as an excuse for a climactic shootout. The villains of the story are equally two dimensional and don’t really feel like a threat or even a presence.
The film is better when McConaughey is on screen and he forms a good rapport with Sheridan and Lofland, and invests his character with enough colour and humanity that it covers over the broad strokes and overly gimmicky things occasionally done with Mud. It’s a very quiet performance, but it gives the movie a beating heart and that serves it well. Sheridan and Lofland give solid performances, Sheridan in the bigger role is a little creaky in the more emotional moments, but for the most part hold their own. The film certainly creates its world very well, and rather than overplaying it’s southern Gothic hand, creates a fairly realistic picture of what a fishing community like this would look like. Of course this relative realism hurts the the more heightened elements of the film, as they feel out of place, but while it is a throw shit at the wall and see what sticks kind of movie, I’d say enough of it lands for the film to be an enjoyable experience.
Mud is a flawed film, I don’t think there can be much question of that. It feels like a patchwork quilt of ideas that don’t quite fit together neatly enough to make you see past the stitching but I’d say those who enjoy meditative looks at a community and its place in the modern world will get more out of this than those after a creepy, slow-building Sotuhern Gothic thriller. The movie aspires to be both, which is both commendable and the reason for its failures, but there’s a candour, an honesty about the movie that together with a good performance or two that make it worth putting up with the occasional lack of focus. And it’s certainly another noteworthy chapter in the redemption of Matthew McConaughey, an actor that finally is leaving up to his potential. Thank god for mid life crises, am I right?
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