What's happened to Matthew McConaughey? Usually when you ask that question about an actor, it's because he's sold out, opting for facile studio pictures over the interesting, artistically appealing work on which he built his career (i.e. Nicolas Cage).
But McConaughey's gone in the other direction. After years of blowing that natural charm and rakish smile on lightweight romantic comedies and generic action movies, in recent films he's been showing his range as an actor and forcing us to take him seriously. Recently he appeared as a charming hit man in Killer Joe, a wily district attorney in Bernie and the owner of a male strip club in Magic Mike, and he was impressive in all three.
And so he is in Mud, from Jeff Nichols (brother of Lucero frontman Ben Nichols), who last directed the terrific Take Shelter. This is a smart little movie about becoming a man in the South, as seen through the eyes of a boy whose world is being rocked on all sides.
That boy is Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a 14-year-old who lives on the edge of poverty with his mom, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) and dad, Senior (Ray McKinnon). Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) sneak off in Senior's boat to visit an island, where they find a man hiding out. Mud (McConaughey) is a beast of the Southern wild, foraging for his life and desperate for something to eat and someone to talk to.
The boys, naturally, are curious, and Ellis is taken in with Mud's talk of love for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Ellis' parents are on the verge of separation, and his understanding of what it means to love and be in love has him confused. He himself has a crush on May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), an older girl from his high school who actually gives him the time of day.
All of this is a lot for a young teen to understand, especially when Juniper blows through town, followed by the hard-bitten men Mud says are after him. See, Mud's stories are more than stories: There's a storm of violence brewing, and Ellis and Neckbone don't know well enough to take shelter.
Neckbone is in because he's Ellis' wingman, and Ellis because he feels that if he can support Mud's escape and reunion with Juniper, he'll have done his part for the cause of true love, which his own family has let fall by the wayside.
Therein lies the crux: This impressionable boy desperately wants to believe in something, or someone, but is let down by everyone. He's not yet realized that everyone is flawed and that grown-ups tend to be more confused and screwed-up than kids. Mud is Southern Gothic, shaded with Faulkner and Twain, still managing to be surprisingly emotional and tender.
For his part, Nichols continues to carve out a space as a unique American director, with Mud nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. His movies are shot well, and, perhaps more importantly, exceedingly well-written, capturing the inner struggle of men from a certain part of the country at a certain time in their lives. In Sheridan he's found a young actor who offers the film everything it needs, but it's Matthew McConaughey who as usual, these days, delivers the emotional goods.