Matthew McConaughey is on a roll. His most recent work in films such as "Killer Joe" and "Paperboy" exemplify a versatile and immense talent which seemed lurking beneath the surface in his previous films. In the new film, "Mud," McConaughey gives the performance of a lifetime in a meticulously and methodically paced tale of love and mistrust.
Set in present day rural Arkansas, "Mud" begins as two teenagers, Ellis (Tye Sheridan who's outstanding) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), discover a boat nestled high in the trees on an abandoned island. Hoping to claim it as their own, their plans are dashed when they run into a charismatic fugitive named Mud (McConaughey) who's taken up residence on the craft. He tells the boys that he killed a man who beat his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and is being chased by bounty hunters. Needless to say, the impressionable boys are enthralled by his fantastic yarn and agree to help him fix the boat so he and Juniper can flee.
Now, Mud admits he doesn't "traffic in the truth too often," but Ellis is enamored by his love story because his beloved parents are in the process of separating. The void of feeling helpless about his parent's situation is filled by being able to assist Mud in his quest to be reunited with his one true love. However, as things progress, Ellis begins to feel exploited by Mud as he's being routinely put in harm's way.
This is writer/director Jeff Nichols' third feature film ("Take Shelter" and "Shotgun Stories") and it's a work of art. There are no false notes hit in this provocative slice of American life cut from the deep south, beautifully shot. The in-depth character development of all the players in this exquisite story are woven together like an exotic tapestry. A foreboding score, references to snakes and firearms create a sense of impending doom as the film approaches an unexpected and shocking conclusion.
"Mud" also benefits big time by clever casting. Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon ("Walk the Line") has very little screen time yet manages to convey a multitude of layers in her portrayal of the damaged Juniper. A spot-on move in casting Sam Shepard as a secretive neighbor and former "friend" of Mud's is pure genius. And Michael Shannon as Neckbone's uncle (and Nichols' muse in both of his previous films) is astounding, as usual.
But it's McConaughey who owns this magical film. He trades in his pretty boy persona for a gritty, flawed and tortured soul who believes in the power of love. And it's a brilliant move.
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