After spending years slumming it in one dimwitted romantic comedy (more often than not co-starring Kate Hudson) after another, Matthew McConaughey appears to have grown tired of coasting and decided to remind audiences that he's still capable of, you know, acting. Starting with 2011's "The Lincoln Lawyer," he has made a number of good choices, taking interesting roles in several smaller indie films, from "Magic Mike" to "Killer Joe." In the process he has turned in some of the best performances he's ever given. His career renaissance continues with his stellar portrayal of the title character in "Mud," Jeff Nichols' ("Take Shelter") Southern crime drama meets sensitive coming-of-age tale.
Despite having the film named after him, McConaughey's character isn't actually the focus of this story. The film's true concern is two 14-year-old boys: adventurous Ellis (Tye Sheridan, "The Tree of Life") and his smart Alec friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). While out exploring an island on the Mississippi, the boys stumble across the temporary home of Mud, who is on the run from the law and hiding out in the woods while formulating a plan to reunite with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the love of his life. We soon learn that Mud murdered a man in an attempt to defend the honor of his less than faithful girlfriend and is now a fugitive, struggling to keep ahead of the authorities, as well as a band of bounty hunters who have rolled into town, led by the murdered man's father and brother. Having just been told of his parents' impending divorce, Ellis sees a lot of appeal in Mud's brand of outlaw romanticism, and the boys promise to aid Mud in whatever way they can. It isn't long before the boys are running errands for Mud, collecting the supplies he needs to make his great escape, and acting as his go-between, delivering messages to Juniper.
Nichols' film is leisurely paced, focused more on character and tone than on the admittedly sometimes familiar story. His script owes an obvious debt to the works of Mark Twain; Ellis and Neckbone share a bit of literary DNA with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Mud himself often comes across as what might have become of one of those characters if they had grown up and gone wrong. Filmed on location in Arkansas, the setting adds a lot of texture to the tale, enhancing the feeling of authenticity in its depiction of the river-dwelling community in which the film is set. Adam Stone's cinematography captures the mood perfectly, straddling the line between the idyllic beauty of childhood and the harsh realism of the working-class environment. Nichols does such a good job immersing us in this world that it's a bit of a letdown when the film ditches the rich character development that has come before for a climax that resorts to a standard shootout showdown. But after such a grippingly slow build, the film has more than earned it.
It is refreshing to note that his script doesn't resort to caricature in its depiction of the deep south. But the film's underwritten female roles are a problem, inadvertently sending the message that all women are selfish, duplicitous, and absolutely not to be trusted. Still, Witherspoon and Sarah Paulson (as Ellis' mother) do what they can to add some depth to their characters, and there is a method behind the way in which the women in the film are written that ties in with the story's resonant themes of redemption and the nature of love in its many complexities.
McConaughey gives a traditional anti-hero role some interesting shades. His natural magnetism and charisma adds to the character's innate likeability, while not taking away from the fact that there is a dangerous side to his personality lying just beneath the surface. There's also strong supporting work from Ray McKinnon, as Ellis' gruff but loving father, and Sam Shepard as Mud's former mentor. But the real standout of the film is young Tye Sheridan, giving a performance that ranks among the best I've seen by a child actor (first-timer Lofland is also extremely good as Neckbone, but he's given slightly less to do). More than anything else, this is the story about Ellis's rite-of-passage journey into manhood, and it is through his eyes that we view the events of the film. Without Sheridan's strong performance as an anchor, "Mud" wouldn't work nearly as well as it does.