I am a fairly unabashed lover of big-budget action spectacles (see Star Trek Into Darkness or The Avengers), but every now and then I like to enjoy a small, character-driven film to mix things up. This has usually been fairly rewarding (see Moonrise Kingdom), though I've admittedly been drawn in only after hearing positive word-of-mouth beforehand. Mud has not only garnered critical acclaim since its limited release, but it also held academic opportunities for me, particularly towards the leading actor Matthew McConaughey. It's recently been reported that McConaughey will be the star of Christopher Nolan's next feature, Interstellar which comes out next year. As Nolan is probably my favorite filmmaker working today, I really wanted to see whether McConaughey was up to scratch to perform in such a (presumably) serious and complex film that has become Nolan's specialty. I'll follow up on that in November of next year, but this film was able to interest me enough to completely drop my "research" on McConaughey's dramatic chops and focus on the story it was telling.
Ellis is a fourteen year-old boy who lives on the banks of a river in southern Arkansas, selling frozen fish to vendors in a nearby town. However, Ellis and his friend Neckbone take a motor boat to an island on the river and find a boat lodged in a tree. As they inspect closer, they realize that someone has been living in the boat and climb down to find a disheveled and mysterious man who later introduces himself as Mud. Ellis takes a personal interest in Mud, particularly when he realizes that Mud is hoping to reunite with his longtime love, Juniper. On a trip into town, however, Ellis discovers that Mud is being hunted down by local authorities for unknown reasons. Stuck between his parents' impending separation and his own struggles to woo an older girl, Ellis grows more and more determined to help Mud escape with Juniper even as deadly forces conspire against them.
The first thing that stuck out to me on this film was how beautifully it was shot. 100% of the movie was shot on location in southern Arkansas, which is fairly evident given the authenticity of the scenery. There's a very earthy quality to this film that isn't necessarily glamorous, but instantly transports the viewer to a place they may never see again. The narrative also plays out like a modernization of a Mark Twain story, giving it a familiar yet somewhat unusual feel.
As mentioned above, I had a few reservations about Matthew McConaughey going into this viewing. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy his work in comedic films, but not every actor can make a convincing jump from comedy to drama, particularly one with such a reputation. Not only was I amazed at his acting, however, I think this might be McConaughey's best performance to date. This is not a glamorous film, and Mud is not a glamorous character. He wears a yellowing shirt throughout the film and constantly has dirt smeared all over his body. The icing on the cake is the chipped tooth that takes away any remnants of the stereotypical Matthew McConaughey that we see in most movies.
This film may not be for everyone (Lara and I heard a few vocal detractors making dim-witted puns about what "Mud" is when spelled backwards), but the complexity of each relationship in this movie is pretty fascinating to watch. Mud isn't necessarily my kind of movie on paper, but I found myself completely wrapped up in the story of Ellis trying to figure out the meaning of love while risking his life to help a complete stranger regain his own. If I had to find a complaint about this film, I'd say that the beginning starts a little too slowly and the language gets a little obnoxious (particularly from Neckbone). Some of the characters are a little crude, though that does seem pretty authentically portrayed. Other than that, I really enjoyed Mud. It may not be as clever or quirky as Moonrise Kingdom, but this film may be more meaningful. If it's playing in your city, I definitely recommend it. I give Mud three and a half stars.
MUD is rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking.