Whereas Matthew McConaughey’s characters are becoming more bedraggled and gaunt with every recent film he’s appeared in (see Killer Joe, The Paperboy and Magic Mike), his acting abilities are blossoming. Jeff Nichols’ successor to 2012’s Take Shelter sees him as Mud; an escaped felon who’s in hiding on a small island and hellbent on winning back the heart of his lifetime love Juniper (Witherspoon). With the help of two bold youngsters he hopes to escape the island and protect his damsel from the sinful hands of other men. Neckbone (Lofland), who looks eerily similar to River Phoenix in his early years, is wary of the tattooed stranger, but Ellis (Sheridan) looks up to him as a role model and will do what he can to lend a helping hand. From here on in the film becomes a coming of age tale about the pangs of adolescence and the search for true love.
McConaughey gives a tender and endearing performance as the desperate anti-hero that will likely cement his newfound reputation as a serious, and seriously good, actor. But Mud is more a showcase of unspoilt youthful talent and Sheridan and Lofland are both terrific as the headstrong duo. Sheridan, the youngest son from The Tree of Life, gives a performance that’s racked with raw organic emotion and Lofland’s wisecracks display a real understanding of comedic timing. On the whole the ensemble is convincing and aside from a slightly strained performance from Witherspoon the characters feel like real people each with their own agendas and motivations.
It’s fortunate that the performances are so strong because if they weren’t the film would likely have a hard time enticing its audience in its initial half. The story is slow to get going and with a straightforward and arguably predictable narrative arc it takes a long time to accelerate into dramatic territory, But once everything has fully uncoiled it proves to have a potent bite and there are some scenes here that rival the year’s best so far.
Mud doesn’t make much of an imprint in American cinematic history but it’s a finely tuned piece of traditional Hollywood storytelling that offers up some diamonds in the rough with its young leads.