Matthew McConaughey’s name is ‘Mud’ in writer/director Jeff Nichols’ musing on southern life along the Mississippi River. Ellis and Neckbone are a couple of Arkansas teenagers who happen upon the drifter in an exiled status. Covered in a mixture of soft earth and water, Mud is aptly named. He’s a cursed man living a solitary existence, but he’s also a charismatic individual full of stories to tell. Ellis is intrigued with the strange plight of this homeless man and they embark upon an agreement whereby he swaps the promise of his boat in return for their help.
Mud’s biggest selling point are the captivating performances. Matthew McConaughey can act. He’s been on a winning streak ever since 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer. This role is up to the same high standard as every portrayal he’s given in the last couple years. He’s matched by two teens, the skeptical Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) and idealistic Ellis (Tye Sheridan). This is only Sheridan’s second credit (he played the youngest of the 3 boys in The Tree of Life). The authenticity of his work makes him a memorable actor. In the midst of Ellis’ interactions with Mud, we come to discover the tension between the teen’s parents at home is escalating. Ostensibly it’s “something to believe in” that causes Ellis to be so taken with his circumstance. Mud’s desire to reunite with his girl Juniper also becomes a mission of sorts for the young hopeless romantic. That a young boy would take on the problems of a stranger in the name of true love is not particularly believable, but it is curious at least. Juniper, on the other hand, is so nondescript it’s inexplicable why the role attracted a major star. Incidentally, Reese Witherspoon adds nothing to the underwritten character.
Mud is a nice little slice of Americana and it’s got some beautifully written dialogue showcasing McConaughey and the two boys. It’s not obvious initially, but turns out the movie’s main purpose are the exchanges that Mud has with the boys. The boys are articulate and McConaughey is charming, as usual. I was captivated for the first half. But as things progress, the pervading sluggishness becomes tedious when contrasted with the script’s flirtation with thriller elements that never really transpire into anything significant. It’s an adolescent coming of age story with the stereotypical thrust into adulthood. The derivative ingredients ultimately prove to be too insubstantial to support a film that runs over two hours. As we learn more about Mud and the boys, the less intellectually satisfying things become and we realize it’s the conversations themselves that are supposed to captivate us, not some revelatory event. The seemingly unending discourse makes the genre action climax all the more puzzling. It’s almost as if the screenwriter felt compelled to punctuate a mood piece of southern charm and flawed characters with something lively.