THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Matthew McConaughey has had one of the most dramatic career turnarounds in screen history. That's not hyperbole, either. After breaking onto the scene with memorable roles in Dazed and Confused and A Time to Kill, he went through a period of making moronic, interchangeable romantic comedies (How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, The Wedding Planner, Failure to Launch, Fool's Gold, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) and misguided flops (Sahara, Two for the Money). Apparently, McConaughey got the memo that his career was in trouble, because all of a sudden, he stopped coasting on star wattage and took on the task of becoming a bona fide actor again. In just the last two years, he has given acclaimed performances in Bernie, Magic Mike, and Killer Joe. His latest film, Mud, features what may well be the best work of his entire career.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), Mud is the story of a 14-year-old Arkansas boy named Ellis (Tye Sheridan) who is watching his parents' marriage disintegrate. To escape such harsh realities, Ellis and his pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) like to cruise a small motor boat along the river. On an island in the middle of that river, they find an abandoned boat stuck in a tree, presumably from a one-time flood. Living inside the boat is an escaped fugitive named Mud (McConaughey). He tells them that he is waiting on the island for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to come meet up with him. After seeing Juniper wandering the grocery store in their town, the boys approach her, only to discover that Mud's story is a lot more complicated – and dangerous - than he let on.
Mud is a film that operates on two levels simultaneously. On the surface, it's about a couple of naïve boys who help a man on the run and get themselves into trouble as a result. That makes for a very entertaining story. On the level beneath, it draws some fascinating psychological parallels between Ellis and Mud. Ellis feels emotionally adrift in his troubled home; Mud is literally adrift. The boy is disheartened by his parents' fading love. This makes him susceptible to Mud's claims of a grand passion with Juniper. In fact, Ellis takes a lot of risks and does a lot of things to harbor Mud because he thinks he's taking some sort of stand in the name of romance. Meanwhile, he experiences his own relationship woes with a high school girl he becomes involved with, which only further confuses him. At its core, Mud is really a film about love, about how holding on to pure love yields happiness, and how holding on to dysfunctional love leads to misery. The way Nichols explores these themes is riveting.
The director coaxes natural performances from the young actors, who have very few credits to their names. These feel like real kids. Together with cinematographer Adam Stone, Nichols also creates some gorgeous widescreen compositions that convey a certain type of downtrodden, small-town Arkansas way of life. The scenes on the island are especially magnificent, capturing such a vivid ambiance that you practically feel as though you're stuck right there with the characters.
This brings us back to McConaughey, who strips away all his trademark “good old boy” charm to play a man who is unreliable, both in what he says and in what he does. But is Mud bad? The movie keeps that hazy for a long time, for a good reason. As events grow increasingly dramatic, new aspects of the character emerge, and some of them are surprising. McConaughey sells the ambiguousness of Mud completely. He also has a scene that allows him to shine as never before. During the movie's final minutes, there is a shot of Mud standing alongside the road, looking at someone. The expression McConaughey throws off is so authentic, so bursting with emotion, that you may find yourself getting choked up. This is his finest moment as an actor.
Mud is a remarkable film. An action sequence at the very end may be just a little too excessive given the restraint of everything that preceded it, although that scarcely matters. It's a minor flaw in a movie filled with treasures. Beautifully acted, intellectually engaging, and dramatically satisfying, Mud deserves to rocket to the top of your must-see list.
( 1/2 out of four)
Mud is rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!