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. (The best example of this question is "What's happened to Nicolas Cage?")
But McConaughey's gone in the other direction. After years of blowing that natural charm and rakish smile on lightweight romantic comedies with the likes of Jennifer Lopez and generic action movies like Sahara, his recent films have shown his range as an actor and forced us to take him seriously. Just a year ago, 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.
He's back now in Mud, the new film from Jeff Nichols, who last directed the terrific Take Shelter. This is a smart little movie—opening Friday, April 26—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.
Ellis' ideas may sound simplistic, but, remember, he's just 14, and he isn't mature enough to understand the nature of growing up and giving himself over to adulthood. That's the crux of Nichols' film: 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 grownups 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, and his film was nominated for the Palm d'Or at Cannes. There's an episode of violence that ends the film that I found unnecessary, and there's a climactic moment that was telegraphed throughout, but some of that has to do with the accessible allegories he sprinkles throughout. 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 really delivers the emotional goods.
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