Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Matthew McConnaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Date: May 10
We need to talk about Matthew. This career turnaround. Where in the name of God did it come from? Was it turning forty and accepting adulthood; was he visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past who made him watch Ghosts of Girlfriends Past; or, most likely, was he just making hay while the sun was still shining? Whatever it was, the start of this new decade has seen a new McConnaughey: one who has traded in sharing bills with Kate Hudson to taking direction from auteurs like Friedkin, Scorcese, Soderbergh and, soon enough, Nolan.
In his latest, Mud, he’s teamed up with a promising young director Jeff Nichols, helmer of the unnerving apocalyptic drama Take Shelter, for a simple Twain-esque tale of a drifter and two boys who befriend him. Ellis and Neckline are like any young teens in a small town surrounded by a river; perennially in search of some adventure, being naive yet cheeky shits and obsessing over which girl has the best rack at school. After finding the only thing better than a tree house or a boat—a tree-house boat!—they meet Mud, a man living rough on an island who’s hiding from the law, waiting for his girl and needing their help to launch his boat.
McConnaughey’s performance might be his best to date, allowing Mud to chip away—quite literally in the case of his front tooth—at the archetypal Southern charmer he’s become so synonymous with. The charisma is still there but it’s merely papering over cracks of isolation and explosive anger. The great surprise, perhaps, is its two teen turns.
Quite the double act, Ellis and Neckline hit every corner from innocent to hilarious to heartfelt; Ellis (The Tree of Life‘s Tye Sheridan) with his pugnacious, punch first, ask questions later attitude and Neckline’s (first time actor Jacob Lofland) horndog in training under the watchful gaze of his punk-rocking lake diver uncle (an uncharacteristically non-psychopathic Michael Shannon).
The rest of the cast is rounded out with amazing turns; in light of recent tabloid grabbing news, Reese Witherspoon’s trashy motel-dweller might be more looking into a crystal ball than a performance; Sam Shepard stoic loner with a Johnny Unitas haircut is tone-perfect; Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson give strong parental guidance to Ellis as their marriage crumbles around them.
Nichols, shooting in his home state of Arkansas, nails the small town sense of place through images of teens hanging outside the highway strip malls, hand-me-down, worn Fugazi t-shirts, door-to-door sales people selling frozen fish and sweeping shots of mist hanging over rivers. His script, too, is air tight, meshing Stand By Me’s playful teen conversations with A Room For Romeo Brass’ ability to turn dark in an instant.
But it all comes back to Matthew—eating beans with his dirty fingers, putting crosses in his boots to ward off evil spirits—he’s still the man you know, yet this is a complete transformation and the continuation of a career that will be essential viewing in the future. Everybody wins. Well, maybe not Kate Hudson.