PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Matthew McConaughey's Return to Excellent Work with 'Mud'

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 Matthew McCoanughey's return to excellent work has engaged with his Southern roots.


Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Bonnie Sturdivant
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions
Year: 2012
US date: 2013-04-26 (Limited release)
UK date: 2013-05-10 (General release)

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.