Mud: Huck Finn for the New Millennium and the Re-Birth of McConaughey

Mud, poster, movie, Matthew McConaughey

poster via Lionsgate and imdb

Walking out of the theater in which I saw my first viewing of Mud, I was reminded of star Matthew McConaughey’s performance in John Sayles’ Lonestar, a film which, thematically, has little in common with Mud. Specifically, I remember thinking that McConaughey hadn’t been this good since that earlier film. What makes that really interesting to me is that 1. I just read that it was Lone Star that Mud director Jeff Nichols had in mind when he cast his star and 2. That movie came out in 1996. Seventeen years ago. “What the hell happened in between?” you may well ask.

Frankly, there have been some damn fine performances in between. I have to admit to being a Matty fan, but if all you know of him is  his breakthrough role as skirt-chasing stoner Wooderson in the cult classic Dazed and Confused, or lame pseudo romantic comedies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch or Ghosts of Girlfriends past, you’re missing out on some very good performances in some very fine films like A Time to Kill that came out the same year as Lonestar, Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis and costarring Jodie Foster, (One of my favorites from the 90s.) and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. In fact, even while making the aforementioned dismal comedies, there were movies like Frailty (Bill Paxton’s directorial debut. Seek it out if you’re not familiar) and We Are Marshall. Of course, I even liked Reign of Fire. (Christian Bale, Gerard Butler and dragons. C’mon!)

The real problem was that overshadowing the good performances in either iffy movies or good movies no one saw, Matty became a certified movie-star and  his private life (including liaisons with ATTK costars Sandra Bullock and Ashley Judd, as well as naked bongo playing) began to get more ink than his performances. He became a punch line more famous for his physique than his acting chops. (Remind you of anyone? – read that with Craig Ferguson’s voice and side-eye)

The real ‘why’ of it is anyone’s guess. It could have been the lure of the lifestyle and big paychecks or believing one’s own hype and publicity, you name it, it’s as big a mystery as what sparked the turn-around.

Was it the fact that he started wearing a shirt when he settled down and started having kids? Who knows, but the fact is that beginning with The Lincoln Lawyer, perceptions about the actor Matthew McConaughey began to change.  When that movie became a surprise hit in the spring of 2011, McConaughey was suddenly part of the conversation again, in a good way.

His extraordinary run has continued with impressive work  in four wildly different films in 2012: Bernie a black comedy based on real events involving a small-town Texas funeral director, costarring Jack Black and Shirley McLaine (it’s available on Netflix instant and definitely worth a look);  Steven Soderbergh’s penultimate film (so he says) Magic Mike, Lee Daniels’ follow-up to Precious, the divisive The Paperboy with Nicole Kidman, John Cusack and Zac Efron that anyone who saw it either really loved or really, really hated, and William Friedkin’s screen adaptation of Tracy Letts’ award winning play, Killer Joe.  Another black comedy (the blackest), this one is not for everybody. It’s violent, bloody and very twisted. (It may put you right off fried chicken.) Matty plays a lawman who moonlights as a hitman and his performance was nominated for an Independent Spirit award as Best Male Lead.  In 2013, we’ll see the actor so famous as an ideal of male pulchritude minus  more than 45 pounds, the weight dropped from his already lean frame in order to play a drug treatment crusader dying of AIDS, in the upcoming drama Dallas Buyers Club, slated for an awards-friendly fall release.  2013 will also bring Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Matty will be vying against Matty at the box office and possibly on the trophy circuit.

With Mud, which went to the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 and Sundance in 2013, the career make-over, deliberate or otherwise, continues.  McConaughey plays the title character, a drifter, a fugitive from the law risking his life and freedom for love, in a film that, to me, is nothing short of a “Huck Finn” for the new millennium.  Jeff Nichols’s subtly sweet coming-of-age tale, set on the Mississippi River, in southern Arkansas, is about an adolescent boy’s search for love and it is filled with indelible characters played by an exceptional ensemble cast that includes Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, and Reese Witherspoon.

Here’s the (somewhat spoiler-y) synopsis from Roadside Attractions:

14 year-old Ellis(Tye Sheridan) lives on a houseboat on the banks of a river in Arkansas with his parents, Mary Lee (Paulson) and Senior (McKinnon). His best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), also 14, lives with his uncle, Galen (Shannon), who makes a hardscrabble living diving for oysters. The two boys set out to an island on the Mississippi River, where Neckbone has discovered an unusual sight-a boat, suspended high in the trees, a remnant of an extreme flood sometime in the past. They climb the tree and into the boat only to find fresh bread and fresh footprints.Leaving, they find footprints near their boat and that’s when they meet Mud, a gritty, superstitious character with dirty clothes, a cracked tooth, and in need of help. He tells the boys he will give them the treehouse boat, his current hideout, in exchange for food. Neckbone is reluctant, but Ellis brings food to Mud, and they develop a tentative friendship.

Ellis learns that Mud has killed a man in Texas, and police and bounty hunters are looking for him, but Mud is more concerned about reuniting with his longtime love, Juniper (Witherspoon). Ellis, who has recently developed his own crush, agrees to help Mud escape with Juniper. Ellis and Neckbone carry out bold schemes in an effort to protect Mud and relay messages to Juniper, who is holed up in a fleabag motel, under constant surveillance by a Texas bounty hunter taking orders from the cold-blooded King (Joe Don Baker). As the boys risk everything to reunite the lovers, Ellis’s own ideas about love and romance are challenged by the strains in the relationships closest to him: his parents’ marriage is dissolving while he himself falters in his efforts to impress May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). Through it all, Ellis struggles to look for an example of love that he can believe in, learning about the unspoken rules and risks of love and the reality of heartbreak.

McConaughey, is definitely a version of Mark Twain’s Jim, but defies Southern caricature. He’s a combination of both Boo Radley and Boyd Crowder— the “unknown” who can strangle as easily as save, rather than say, Max Cady (either the Robert Mitchum or Robert DeNiro versions) or Long Hair (Bruce Dern in the Cowboys).

As eye-catching as McConaughey’s performance is — thanks, in large part, to a leathery suntan, body-wrapping tattoo and snaggly prosthetic teeth — Mud belongs to the two boys who cross Mud’s path, with memorably fateful results. Without the extraordinarily performances from Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) and Jacob Lofland, there’d be no movie. Sheridan in particular, is in nearly every scene and you can’t take your eyes off of him.  If Sheridan’s Ellis represents youthful wonder, Lofland’s Neckbone represents a more clear-eyed reality.

Mud, Tye Sheridan, Jacon Lofland, movie

photo courtesy Facebook for Mud The Movie

Nichols uses close-ups of Sheridan’s and Lofland’s open, expressive faces to strike a balance between naturalism and more fantastical elements in telling a story in which menace and tenderness coexist,  often in the same scene, sometimes in the same sentence.

Ellis’s reality is a dilapidated houseboat, in which his parents are constantly skirmishing over his mother’s desire for something more, particularly  to move into town.  Neck, ostensibly an orphan, lives with  his well-meaning if ill-equipped, uncle Galen (Shannon).   But as we go with the boys out to the golden, sun-dappled river and to the island where that improbable boat suspended in a tree awaits, Mud shrugs off reality and becomes something more mythic and fairy-tale like.  The movie is more than half over before anyone other than the boys has any contact with Mud. Until then, he may has well have been the boys’ invisible playmate, albeit one not designed to prolong their childhoods but rather take them by the hand and lead them toward adulthood.

Mud extols the basic virtues of honesty, hard work and most of all, trust. The film’s only misstep is a preposterous, in my humble opinion, climax that not only goes on way too long, but the outcome of which is utterly predictable.  Fortunately, by the fade to black, it’s the outcome we’ve all  hoped for anyway.

Here’s the trailer from Lionsgate:

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