Late in Mud, the title character, played by Matthew McConaughey, announces, “I don’t need it no more.” He’s talking about his shirt. A few years ago, the line might have been a joke alluding to much of the actor’s work, which required McConaughey to wear a shirt about as often as it required his subtlety or intelligence in the service of awful romantic comedies. But over the past year, his career seems reinvented—or returned to its original promise. With the 2012 releases Bernie, Magic Mike, and Killer Joe, Matthew McConaughey has again become a charismatic and adventurous performer.
Jeff Nichols’ Mud is another in the actor’s series of portraits of men in the American South. He plays a mysterious drifter encountered by two teenagers, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), on a lake island in Arkansas. Ellis and Neckbone mean to scope out an abandoned boat stuck in a tree, and when they find Mud living there, he makes them a deal: if they help him retrieve and rebuild the boat, he’ll give them his pistol. The gun interests Neckbone, but Ellis is more taken by the stranger’s sketchy backstory. Mud is waiting for the return of his sweetheart Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), so they can run away together.
The fantasy this presents is filtered through Ellis’ point of view. The movie’s world reflects his unsure footing as he moves between childhood and adult concerns, creating a vivid hybrid of hardscrabble living—Ellis’ family lives on the river bank, his father (Ray McKinnon) eking out a living as a sort of fisherman—with fairy-tale details like the deserted island and the fort-like boat in the trees. Neither part of his existence is on solid ground. “This way of life ain’t long for this world,” says Ellis’ father in a line that hits a little too square on the nose.
That directness sometimes reveals more thematic connections than necessary. Overhearing problems in his parents’ marriage based (among other problems) on their precarious economic situation, Ellis projects his distressed youthful idealism onto other romantic relationships. This includes Mud and Juniper (or the version of Mud and Juniper he gets from Mud’s stories), as well as his own forays into dating with an older classmate (Bonnie Sturdivant). Ellis is an earnest, empathetic kid (and played without affectation by Sheridan), but his faith in Mud requires a leap of naïvete that eventually feels informed less by the particulars of his situation than the requirements of coming-of-age narratives.
Despite such conventions, the movie creates an unusual sort of intimacy, especially in its performances. The young actors are excellent, and McConaughey’s Mud resembles a hobo version of the typical McConaughey character: his whole face looks mussed, with a cigarette usually sticking out from his mouth. To the extent that Nichols indulges in any colorful language (his default mode tends to be plainspoken), it’s McConaughey charged with selling those lines, as when he refers to one if his enemies as “triple-six real-deal scratch.”
It’s hard to imagine many other A-list stars pulling off such a regionally specific role, and it doesn’t seem like an accident that McCoanughey’s return to excellent work has engaged with his Southern roots, men with attitudes defined by their lives in Texas, Florida, and now Arkansas, rather than well or barely dressed yuppie professionals from generic rom-com cities. Like Shelter‘s Michael Shannon (who appears, wonderfully and too briefly, here as Neckbone’s uncle and guardian), McConaughey gives a star turn with character-actor nuance. For that matter, it’s heartening to see Witherspoon in a decent role again, too, though she only has a few scenes as the mysterious Juniper. Maybe she’s ready to follow McConaughey back from the pits of would-be crowd-pleasing.