Matthew McConnaughey, once upon a time, seemed to embody a certain type of surfer élan: slick but ultimately more likely to end up straddling a beanbag, corner-slumped in a cloud of smoke, grinning at something indistinct, than pondering weighty matters, such as his dwindling career.
Or, being slightly less charitable: he seemed to prop up a large number of dismal rom-coms. He looked like he was coasting. Whatever it was he had – and you see plenty of it in Mud – was largely unneeded in the roles given to him. He was drawling eye-candy. He was a beach bum with expensive hair smirking his way through 2D love match-ups.
Fitting, then, to see him in Mud largely patrolling the confines of an island: sand, palms, glinting water under permanent sun. But no surfboard anywhere to be seen. He’s in a characteristic environment, for all the wrong reasons, unlikely to slap any bongos. He’s currently a shameless suit for Scorsese and can soon be seen here as a redneck-turned-HIV-hero in Dallas Buyer’s Club (that’s forgetting an apparently great turn in cop TV drama True Detective. Renaissance is no understatement). He’s always been very good (and was great in Lone Star and Contact, intermittent substance amid all the wisecracking Chippendale fluff) but now he seems to have arrived as a serious actor.
Not that we see in the film at all initially, which until his second act appearance centres on two kids, one in particular. They tear about on a boat (this is nearly always boy’s-own stuff, adventurousness compromised by fate) and, whilst visiting a nearby island, following a brief biographical sketch of both family situations (broken, living with uncle; breaking, painfully obviously), McConnaughey’s Mud enters stage left, curiously inspecting their boat as they wander back up the beach to make what will be the film’s main triangular acquaintances.
Quickly (perhaps too quickly; the fableish tendencies here are at the expense, occasionally, of dramatic likelihood) the boys befriend this outsider, largely due to the immediate unaffected colloquy they form. They’re in the same boat (or will be): they’ve been let down by adults and are far from conventional normality, the kids by circumstance, Mud by circumstance (orphaned young) and intent. And yet, things as they are, the kids understand Mud is from the adult world, albeit reluctantly. He’s a role model as well as a psychological peer. So they defer to his dubious wisdom, and it’s one of the peculiar triumphs of the film that the audience can’t help but advocate their allegiance and mutual unconfinability whilst at the same time recognising and accepting the subsequent peril. It’s a film of vicarious ridiculousness that makes its characters too indelible and empathetic for them to be compromised by a throwaway trope: Nichols is more interested in the mindset of two kids wrestling with a volatile set of scenarios and emotional turmoil than he is with verisimilitude.
Mud has formulated a plan of escape that involves the repair (and rescue, from treetops – this really is full of fairly preposterous boy-scout setups) of a wrecked boat: the kids gradually scrabble together the necessary bits and bobs needed for a pretty neat fix-up job. The other, trickier request he makes of his loyal assistants involves contacting his girlfriend, Reese Witherspoon (not quite right for the role, I’d argue: I can only guess Nichols has gone for an actress that looks childlike for obvious reasons, or couldn’t get his first choice. Backing this up is the line at one point describing her as having ‘legs that go on forever’. Well, whatever qualities Witherspoon has, she doesn’t have those. Blake Lively?) and getting her onside for a getaway reunion. They soon become part of a murky retribution sideshow via Witherspoon that slowly expands as a looming threat to the escape plot as the kids are watched to track the whereabouts of Mud.
The brief involvement with Witherspoon’s damaged, reluctant ex compounds and solidifies a lot of the film’s major themes. She’s way out of her depth, getting knocked around a cheap motel room by a hothead cop on Mud’s trail, and is loyal to Mud to an extent. When the time comes, however, for the trip to the island and a reconciliation, she doesn’t show, and can instead be found (unconvincingly) acting the role of dive-bar floozy. A lot of people in the film are both their assumed roles and the very different reality at different points: aptly enough, Mud doesn’t change, as the elemental title character, and remains consistent throughout: unrealistic and unchangeably quixotic, a child, despite effecting a rapid maturity in the two kids that have become his sidekicks.
The revelation that Mud has murdered a man in the name of his futile but undeterred longing is, crucially, of little dramatic consequence: we’re already inexorably onside as the alternative is impossible. Two smart, likeable, troubled kids and Matthew McConnaughey piecemeal building a boat to escape closing doom beats any number of cipher cops and stick-on vengeful axe-grinders. In the absence of a compelling victim, no number of faceless rivals would pose any moral questions with which to create any intrigue. (Perhaps a lack of such dubiousness – McConnaughey is never anything but a lovable rogue admirably outside the law – is a missed opportunity, but it doesn’t particularly feel that way in such an elegiac piece.) It’s very much a child’s fantasy: Mud’s surrogate father figure Sam Shepard has read the riot act and that’ll do: any more would be spurious. He’s murdered someone but it was in the name of love and he’s a rough-diamond with a hellish past and a dream we can get behind.
The main kid, furious at both the dawning realisation that this long-shot caper may end badly, and due to his perception of being used by Mud, doles out yet another dressing down to our adult protagonist and then ends up in a snake pit. To leave the island at this point would be potential suicide for Mud…but to not leave the island at this point would be dramatic hara-kiri, so he does, commandeering both kids’ vehicles, gunning the boat back to risk-ridden civilisation before biking up to the hospital foyer with the swaddled kid precariously onboard, and jumping off the bike, which he leaves sprawled and running as he dispatches his imperilled cargo before beating a quick retreat under the gaze of a dozen or so patients, all fully aware of who’s in their midst, not to mention the reward on his head.
Pretty quickly thereafter the convalescent kid’s riverside home (silence prevailing before the action commences: such silence, during or precluding a denouement or key scene, is often the precursor to an eruptive, emphatic countervailing cacophony. You only get such quiet, in films such as this, on loan: it’s there to be filled at some inevitable point. Michael Mann and the Coen Brothers are keen exponents of such quiet-quiet-loud moments. It really is the favoured way, it seems, to introduce a mad spray of bullets. Keeping your powder dry, literally, for slightly signposted but undoubted effect) becomes the scene of a cagey riverside shoot-out, as a fleeing Mud, attempting to make a reconciliatory pit-stop to his recuperating accomplice before exiting for good, dives into the river, neither he nor the bullet with his name on it re-emerging.
Director Jeff Nichols has allied all the elements that make McConnaughey perfect for this Huck Finn meets The Fugitive meld (unconfinable, esoteric, elemental) with a sense of stubborn, dangerous adolescence and naivety. The film is populated almost entirely by squabbling, dreaming children. McConnaughey is probably less mature than the two kids that become his go-between confidantes; Reese Witherspoon wears the face of a withered 12-year old playing at slutty oblivion; Michael Shannon is a big kid, lounging around with a guitar, juvenilely irking women, diving to the bottom of the river for gleefully accrued, worthless booty. The only recognisably ‘adult’ adult is Sam Shephard, who is still quietly mourning the death of his beloved wife, until Mud’s whereabouts and a reunion bring about that father-son chastisement, as late as it is futile. The onlooking kids wryly remark on the ferocity of the assault, but they’re beyond shock at such an eruption, in turn orphaned and shacked up with good-natured deadbeat uncle, and witness to the exponentially tumultuous demise of his parents’ marriage.
So Mud, amongst other things (gender roles, the painful marvels of adolescence, friendship, freedom etc) is about kids, both adult and child, unmoored and adrift, trying to find solace and refuge against the vagaries of pending or full-blown adulthood, which is, as Nichols has it, pretty vicious: he seems to prefer the bruised magic of kidulthood to Mud’s bullet-ridden freedom-at-a-huge-price. He’s pretty convincing, and Mud is a supremely entertaining film about serious questions, set in an alluring if volatile backwater, that should, along with other imminent releases, put its lead where he belongs and give director Nichols plenty of opportunity to try and best this. Not easy.
The Mud landscape never feels quite real: this is very much Mark Twain country, unrelenting sun from dawn to dusk and then the immense humid hush of nightfall interrupted by nothing beyond the creak and clatter of porch screens. Again, it’s not recognisably adult: all of the tumult beyond home that you might expect has been excised; all other life outside our story has been paused until resolutions are finalised. The price paid, here, for dallying with danger and near-death is scaring yourself into the realisation that some people, to survive, need to accept that they have no part to play in the commonly-held version of the adult world. The finale Nichols gives to his titular protagonist is a vast expanse of beautiful nothing, freedom equalling exiled solitude.
The film, ultimately, would seem to be about the necessity of ignoring all the deleterious accumulations of contemporary life and retaining a sense of awe. Nichols gets away with such a Malickesque premise partly by being, unlike that director, completely uninsistent about the fact and by making irresistible comparisons between sunkissed motels, bars and soon-to-be vanished shacks and that stereotypically alluring combo of clear water and remote island. Man is an island – tick. Everything is fleeting – tick. The child is father of the man – tick. There are no new stories – it’s the way you tell ‘em. If you do it like this, you can create something powerful and form part of a welcome career renaissance. Next up: Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd in Waiting For Godot.