Much has been written about the recent shift in Matthew McConaughey’s career. After years of awful rom-coms like Failure to Launch and Ghost of Girlfriends Past, there has been a significant and sudden change in his work, and the excitement amongst critics is palpable. In just the last two years, McConaughey has starred in five celebrated independent films – Bernie, Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Magic Mike, and now Mud, which gives him his best opportunity to show his skills as a sun-drenched outlaw hiding out on a small river island in the Mississippi.
The story, with its echoes of Mark Twain and its biblical themes, is deep and resonant, and the role is rife with nuance and contradictions. If there ever was a moment for him to really break through as an actor – not just as a star – this is it. But can he take advantage of the opportunity?
While McConaughey is getting all the buzz, the heavy lifting falls to young Tye Sheridan, who plays Ellis, 14-year-old child of the Arkansas swamps and a failing marriage. While his parents whisper in hushed tones about their future, Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) ride around the river, looking for trouble. They finally find it on a small island, where the eponymous outlaw is hiding from the authorities and planning to escape with his lady, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), waiting back in town. Ellis is taken in by Mud’s story of love and loss – and most of all by the fact that Mud treats him like an adult – and transfers the feelings he has divested from his own family into Mud’s survival. He and Neckbone travel back and forth from town, bringing him supplies to repair a broken boat, with which Mud plans to flee to the Gulf of Mexico.
Confident in both his own abilities and the audience’s attention span, Nichols takes his time setting up the action, foregoing big dramatic set pieces for a slow build that pays off handsomely in the film’s climax. The problem is that it takes too long to get there. After the first twenty minutes, when you realize Nichols has nothing fancy up his sleeve, I found myself drifting. The underlying hook is sound; it is classic coming-of-age material, in which a child finds his moral compass through navigating a situation intended for adults. Ellis stays fiercely devoted to Mud for most of the film, while we in the audience cringe in anticipation of the inevitable letdown that all adults – especially outlaws – eventually bring to children.
So what’s the problem? I’ve often had issues with leading actors who are children, but Tye Sheridan does an admirable job with Nichols’s sparse dialogue. What he really needed was a dynamic actor working across from him, and it’s McConaughey who is not up to the task.
McConaughey has relied on his charisma for so long that he never really had to develop his craft. Mud has characteristics that could make a good actor drool: he’s lovelorn and innocent as a child, but he’s also mysterious with just a hint of danger. As his name suggests, he is a creature of nature, but there is no wildness in McConaughey’s performance. Most of the time, it just feels like someone dropped Wooderson from Dazed and Confused off in the woods and built a story around him. It’s not that McConaughey is wrong for the role – he just never finds anything particularly interesting in it.
But the actor does deserve some credit, just not for his performance itself. The most amazing thing about Mud may be that I saw it at a Regal Cinemas that was also screening The Croods, GI Joe: Retaliation, and Jurassic Park 3D. McConaughey’s presence earned this small, eccentric film a big audience, and for that, he should be praised. That’s, however, as far as I would go. Mud demonstrates that the reports of his acting rebirth have been greatly exaggerated.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue