Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Blu-Ray Review: Mud

I am here to declare the career transformation of Matthew McConaughey complete.  Not to say he is finished producing fantastic work, no, this complete transformation has put McConaughey on another level as an actor where I predict no more disastrous career choices.  No longer is he using his good looks and bright smile to coast through romantic comedies.  If Kate Hudson wants to work with McConaughey again, I predict she will need to step up her game as well.  I know I've harped on this resurgence for some time now, but I feel it is vital for everyone to understand what McConaughey is doing these days.  This is brilliant work from an actor I always knew had it in him. 

Over the last few years, Matthew McConaughey has changed his image with cutting-edge films like Magic Mike and Killer Joe, both fantastic works from top-notch directors in Steven Soderbergh and William Friedkin.  His transformation could be seen a year earlier with slight, but still more challenging films like The Lincoln Lawyer and BernieMud represents the top of the mountain for McConaughey thus far in his career, a towering performance that is as physical as it is layered and emotionally engaging.

Taking place in the far Southeastern region of Arkansas, just off the Mississippi River, Mud tells the story of a precocious young boy named Ellis (Tye Sheridan).  Ellis has a loving mother and father, but the poverty of their lives are beginning to take hold.  His father (Ray McKinnon) and mother (Sarah Paulson) are separating, leaving Ellis caught in the middle to struggle with his own changes as an adolescent.  Ellis spends his days with his friend, Neckbone, played with some boorish comic relief by Jacob Lofland.  Ellis and Neckbone go out on a small boat one morning, out to an island that is beyond their parent-enforced cutoff in the tributary leading out to the mighty Mississippi.  The island, they think, is abandoned, but during their exploration they find McConaughey's character, Mud, a mysterious drifter with crosses nailed into the bottom of his boots.  "To ward off evil spirits," he says.

Mud is baked by the sun, his hair is greasy and long, and his teeth are in bad shape.  He is mysterious, vague in his responses to the boys at first, and the details of his life are delivered slowly, patiently, as the stories work to complete the character.  Part of the brilliance of the screenplay by director Jeff Nichols is the time he takes developing Mud, shown only through the eyes of Ellis and Neckbone.  The audience cannot quite get hold of Mud and pick up on his motivations.  Is he bad?  Is he a good man in the wrong place?  Those details are delivered with such meticulous work in the screenplay that the film is most fascinating when we are listening to the slow drawl of McConaughey tell his story. 

There is a rather intricate plot at play here, deepening the mystery along the way.  Mud has killed a man, but only in defense of the woman he loves and has loved since he was a child, perhaps around Ellis's age.  This love tale intertwines with Ellis and his struggles to understand older girls in high school.  Mud is on this island hiding out, certain that his girl, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), has a plan to meet him out there so the two of them can live happily ever after.  But first she must shake the heavies on her tail, family members of the mudereded man who are low-rent gangsters and killers.  It seems the man Juniper was dating had it coming.  But Mud needs help from the boys, help in getting an abandoned boat out of a tree, likely planted there during a flood.  Ellis and Tye work to bring supplies back to Mud from in town, despite Neckbone's growing suspicion of Mud's intentions.

The plot also involves a number of working parts, including Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship, a mysterious man with a connection to Mud, and the impending doom which grows with every passing scene.  The picture has everything, from humor and wit to heavy emotional drama, suspense, and, most importantly, fantastic performances.  Everyone here is wonderful in their roles.  We have said enough about McConaughey as Mud, an Oscar-worthy performance, but do not overlook Tye Sheridan as Ellis.  As we spend a majority of the time with Ellis, Sheridan's job is vital to the success of the film, and as Ellis we buy into the angst of turning into a teenager, of balancing familial strife with raging hormones and, of course, of this new mysterious man on the island.  Mud is among one of the finest pictures of the year, an unforgettable work of Southern Gothic storytelling that is - yes - the final step in the rehabilitation of Matthew McConaughey's career.