BY RAJ RANADE
There’s a moment in Mud, the new film from director Jeff Nichols, where Matthew McConaughey, playing a fugitive laying low by an Arkansas river delta, drawls a tall tale to the boys who have stumbled upon his hideout about the magic white shirt that he has to keep on to ward off evil spirits. As rejections of type-casting by actors go, this might seem entirely too cute, but it’s symbolic nonetheless of the late-career renaissance McConaughey has found himself in – the guy once seemingly best-known for bongo-playing and barechestedness has become one of our most reliably great supporting actors (witness his searing performances last year in Magic Mike and Killer Joe – he’s even terrific in out-and-out disaster The Paperboy).
The performances, by McConaughey and an excellent supporting cast (Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon), are the main reason to see Mud, which finds Nichols in a relatively light-hearted Huckleberry Finn mode after the Southern Gothic of Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories. The film centers around Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a young boy who encounters McConaughey’s fugitive, known only as Mud, while on a search for an abandoned boat. Mud convinces Ellis into helping him reunite with his girlfriend Juniper (Witherspoon) and avoid the vigilantes out for his head, but as Ellis starts to find out both from his interactions with the outlaw and his struggles with divorcing parents and a crush years older than him, not everyone should be taken at face value.
Mud is decidedly a step down from Nichols’ stunning earlier works – this coming-of-age tale is suffused with cliché even before the third act goes into particularly overblown melodrama territory involving a race against time to the hospital, a surprisingly violent shootout, and a too-tidy reunion. But Nichols is the type of director who finds ways to surprise you with a deftly captured image – the precisely-lensed Arkansas rust and foliage make for a very strong sense of place – or an unexpected character detail.
As per usual, Michael Shannon (who had to cancel his Q+A at the film’s Kentucky Theater screening due to a scheduling conflict) is a standout as Galen in a small role. The uncle of one of Ellis’ friends, Neckbone, Galen seems to be all womanizing bluster and gearhead eccentricity (he spends a lot of time working on a homemade diving helmet he uses for clam-catching). But for all the macho posturing, a tender fatherly concern sneaks through in the way Galen advises the boys in their dealings with Mud. He’s not unlike the film itself – with the occasional surprising insight to be found if you look past the generic surface.