In 2012, Matthew McConaughey pulled off one of the most remarkable career transformations ever noted by a national audience. Before last year, the one time rom-com specialist was seen as a movie star, not an actor. The charming Texan with a pretty face and a knack for losing his shirt seemed content to be a Hollywood heartthrob — until he took four independent film roles all simultaneously within his wheelhouse and outside of it.
You see, these roles stretched the actor’s range in a way yet to be seen, but they weren’t a reach for the man by any means. In Killer Joe and Magic Mike, he was still overtly sexual, still sporting his trademark drawl, and still shirtless for most of his time on screen.
McConaughey got this close to an Oscar nomination while nabbing two Independent Spirit Award nods and a win for Magic Mike, and suddenly, the actor was hot. He found a spot in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and the lead in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014).
Perhaps even more pertinent, McConaughey is staring at another Oscar nomination — if not two — in 2013. He’s got his best shots with the yet-to-be-released Dallas Buyers Club and aforementioned Wolf of Wall Street, but he also gave an awards-worthy turn in this year’s indie smash, Mud.The point, though, is that McConaughey managed to rebrand himself as a talented A-list thespian without altering who he is inside: a charming Southern man who really doesn’t like wearing a shirt.
In Jeff Nichols’ Arkansas-set drama, McConaughey plays the titular Mud, a hobo discovered by two adventurous young boys on an island along the Mississippi. Unwashed and mysterious, the hobo offers the boys a trade: the boat he’s been living in for food from the inland town. He has nothing else to offer but his pistol and the shirt on his back, both possessions he clings to for luck and necessity. The shirt serves as protection from a second snake bite that would kill him. The pistol, well, that gets explained later on.
It’s tough to tell if Mud earned its title because it’s about the unusually named character, because he’s the catalyst for our story, or simply to describe the soil of the South. Any way you cut it, the film still works. With its meandering, lackadaisical pace, Mud embodies a culture known for doing things slowly, but deliberately. Each character speaks in the oft-mocked dialect, yet keeps any trace of parody a million miles away. Nichols, an Arkansas native, grounds his film in authenticity through clever casting, ideal locales, and a script alive with his lifetime of knowledge.
In one of the Blu-ray’s four making-of featurettes, “Southern Authenticity”, Nichols and his producing partners discuss the careful location choices as well as the long journeys required to reach them. From pavement to gravel to dirt to mud to the river, every word coming out of Nichols’ mouth seems redundant after watching his third feature film. It’s all on screen. Every camera movement shows us a land we’ve only read about in Mark Twain novels. Though it may have been a difficult endeavor for city folk, everything feels smooth and easy in the hands of the knowledgeable Nichols.
But weren’t we talking about McConaughey? After all, he’s the man on the poster. His is the name above the title. It’s his movie, isn’t it? Not really. Despite his undeniable charisma and talent to spare — especially next to these gifted, but green youngins — McConaughey blends in with the cast. He becomes not a secondary character, but a single (albeit critical) piece of the puzzle. He connects everyone and everything, bringing it all together, and that itself makes his performance more remarkable than if he had selfishly stolen scenes.
During “The Arkansas Ensemble: The Distinctive Cast and Characters in Mud,” Nichols said he wrote the part with McConaughey in mind. You can certainly tell and not just because the director cleverly included Mud’s “lucky shirt”. The character is written with McConaughey’s effortless charms in mind, but the actor so embodies the role he becomes a part of the story rather than the story itself.
The Blu-ray release also contains directors commentary and two more brief featurettes. “A Personal Tale: Writing and Directing Mud” involves the entire cast and crew in a discussion about their director’s passion project. At 11 minutes, it provides just enough tantalizing backstory as well as some much-appreciated looks at the small production hard at work. The other special feature, simply titled “The Snake Pit,” shows brave young Mr. Sheridan laying in a riverbed while snakes are dumped on top of him. Brief but entertaining, the two minutes of footage show how Nichols achieved one more degree of authenticity for his film.
Mud won’t be the movie to earn McConaughey his Oscar. As I mentioned, he’s simply too modest for the Academy’s garish taste. If he wins or is even nominated for another role, it won’t be as fitting. Much like Magic Mike last year, Mud provides McConaughey with the chance to be an alluring, separate version of himself. Before anyone starts thinking that makes the role any easier to play, this concept carries with it an array of new challenges. He was asked to be himself, but serve the story; to own his scenes, but not become a distraction.
He did all this and then some. He wore the shirt, so to speak, but acted like it wasn’t there.