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The Independent Critic

Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Jacob Lofland, Michael Shannon, Sam Shephard, Sarah Paulson, Tye Sheridan
Jeff Nichols
Rated PG-13
130 Mins
Four featurettes, Director's Commentary

 "Mud" Takes Southern Gothic and Gives it Near Perfect Rhythm 
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It may say a lot about the growth of Matthew McConaughey as an actor that Mud is considered a McConaughey motion picture despite the presence of Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon.

That's the way it should be.

Mud IS McConaughey's motion picture, a fine ensemble film that is nonetheless defined by McConaughey's mysterious figure of a man who is simultaneously a river poet and a man of menace whose danger never seems quite that far away. If Hollywood would have known all along that McConaughey had the kind of performances in him that he's been turning in lately, perhaps we could avoided all those godawful romantic comedies they thrust upon us trying desperately to turn him into a romantic leading man.

The film kicks off innocently enough with two 14-year-old best friends, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), stumbling across the kind of discovery that 14-year-old boys go crazy for until they finally discover girls. The boys stumble across an old boat somehow fixed firmly within a tree. While their first thought turns to what a freakin' amazing treehouse this will be, it's not long before the two boys realize that this house is actually a home and its inhabitant just happens to be the aforementioned Mud (McConaughey), a fugitive who sells his story as a man who has killed another man out of love.

He can't possibly be a threat the boys manage to conclude despite an abundance of evidence that would point to a different conclusion.

Mud is written and directed by Jeff Nichols, whose two other features have been the tragic Shotgun Stories and the magnificently exhausting Take Shelter, for which Michael Shannon was robbed of an Oscar. Shannon is back here, as well, in an extended cameo as Neckbone's father while Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon are all stress and fire as Ellis's might as well be divorced parents.

Then, there's Reese Witherspoon. It seems somehow freakishly appropriate that America's sweetheart would get herself in legal trouble the night of Mud's premiere by mouthing off to a cop after she and her hubby allegedly had a wee bit much to drink. I'm fairly certain such an episode wasn't planned, but it sure as heck fits the persona of Witherspoon's Juniper, a flowery but mostly vacant young woman who is Mud's muse but seems utterly clueless to all that has actually meant. As is true with McConaughey, it's rather refreshing to see Witherspoon actually acting again and avoiding yet another godawful romantic comedy.

I suppose it's unfair to give all the credit to McConaughey no matter how amazing a performance he offers, because Mud does very much center around Tye Sheridan's Ellis, a young man whose place in the world is undefined and whose ability to trust anything around him seems minimal at best. He seems to be a young man who is searching, for trust or connection or just for a love that just isn't so dang muddy. Everywhere he turns, love isn't what it's supposed to be and Sheridan's performance is truly revelatory.

Mud is bathed in Southern gothic production design, with D.P. Adam Stone's lensing exudes both humanity and an almost primal awareness that everything that's going on is bigger than what we're seeing. David Wingo's original music is haunting, while one simply must give kudos to Richard Wright for a production design that is in itself stylish and suspenseful.

This is the McConaughey I love, which is saying quite a bit because he's really never been one of my favorite actors. Yet, when he's on fire like this and like he was in Paper Boy, Magic Mike and Killer Joe, he's nothing short of hypnotic. It almost pains me to think that you'd consider seeing any other film this opening weekend, most notably the stunningly average Pain & Gain.

If you really want to catch a couple of amazing performances bringing to life a story that is sort of a cross between Huck Finn meets Night of the Hunter, then Mud is simply a must see.

© Written by Richard Propes 
The Independent Critic