After the flood waters in a small Arkansas river town recede, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) locate a boat stranded in a delta’s tree line. With an eye to fixing the boat up and claiming it for themselves, the boys climb up only to discover that it is occupied by a mysterious stranger who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Mud seems like a good ol’ Arkansan and so the boys agree to help him secure everything he needs to fix the boat in exchange for Mud’s pistol. Soon, however, Ellis becomes aware that Mud is on the run from the authorities and finds himself caught up in a serious situation centered on Mud’s longtime love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
I saw Mud several weeks after it was released due to the arrival of our baby and by the time I got in the theater, the anticipation was killing me (this also would have shocked me at any point prior to 2013). The trailer was fantastic and writer/director Jeff Nichols’ previous film Take Shelter is tremendous and thus, Mud had my interest. Still, however, this exceeded my expectations by leaps and bounds. If at any point in the last 20 years, you had told me that in 2013, my favorite movie of the year would star Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, I would have either laughed in your face or attempted to punch you, depending on my mood. And yet, that is exactly what has come to pass.
Mud tells a simple story that continuously stays on point for its entirety, diverting only when Nichols feels it is absolutely necessary to build upon the main narrative with a subplot. It is, I think, this determined focus that keeps the film on track when it could have easily deteriorated into something that is only “good” instead of “great.” Having grown up in the South, Nichols has an incredible grasp of his subject matter and treats small town life with great reverence while still displaying the hardships therein. In essence, he picked a familiar setting and inserted a compelling story into the midst of that setting and stitched it all together masterfully. The tone is dark and reminiscent of a Cormac McCarthy novel but it doesn’t dwell in the darkness and actually goes well out of its way to highlight the better aspects of humanity. It’s such a beautifully structured film that I believe it would have succeeded even without the outstanding performances that are play here.
Specifically, Sheridan and McConaughey deliver award-caliber portrayals. Sheridan’s is a less complex character than the one that brought an Oscar nomination for Quvenzhane Wallis in last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild but I found it to be no less emotionally relevant. Sheridan brings a quiet subtlety to the role, exploding into pre-adolescent rage in just the right way at the appropriate moments and you can see that the kid is oozing with talent. It is McConaughey, however, who really brings Mud home. His performance is natural and relaxed but with an edge that betrays Mud’s darker qualities. He is powerful yet fearful and the unfolding inner conflict within such a simple man is a sight to behold. In short, McConaughey is magnificent and he pushes Mud to incredible heights. Grade: A+ (Rated PG-13 for language and violence)