Waist deep in the Big Muddy

Waist deep in the Big Muddy

McConaughey redeems himself with a film so gritty you can taste it

By Tim Pompey 05/02/2013

Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland
Rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking
2 hr. 10 min.

What’s up with Matthew McConaughey? Having launched his career with films like Lone Star and A Time to Kill, he then gained a reputation for phoning in his movie roles (remember Failure to Launch?) and going out to party.

Now, with his tough-minded work in recent films like Magic Mike and Killer Joe, he’s buckled down again in an oily, nasty kind of way, so much so that in this movie, he may have just given the best performance of his career.

Last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild gave us a startling sense of life in the Louisiana swamps. Now Arkansas native Jeff Nichols, who directed the 2011 thriller Take Shelter, has plunged us waist-deep into the Mississippi — a body of water muddy, foreboding and swirling with cottonmouths.

Teenagers Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) have discovered an isolated island that carries an unusual secret. In a tree high off the ground, a large boat is nestled in the branches. These two small-town river rats thirsting for adventure (think Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn) hope to turn this delicious discovery into their own private fort.

The only problem is that someone else has beat them to it — a dirty drifter who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey). The boys meet Mud on the shoreline and, despite his woeful appearance, are instantly drawn to him. When he asks them to bring him some food, they decide to go along for the ride and help him.

What rolls out is a twisting tale of romance, murder and desperation. Mud is trying to reconnect with his old girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), so much so that he has killed her former lover.

Now, with bounty hunters and cops closing in, he has a far-flung plan to run off with her by repairing the boat. The boys are drawn into his scheme but soon find out that, like the river itself, all is not what it appears to be on the surface. The Missippi has many tributaries. So does this film.

The best word to describe director Nichols’ style is seductive. Mixed among tranquil shots of river scenery and sunsets are hard-scrabble folks who must eke out a living from the river.

Some films about Southern life gloss over the culture and turn these citizens into caricatures. Not Nichols. His approach conveys great respect for their ideas and their hard-fought way of life.

And then there’s Nichols the writer, who ably captures both the atmosphere and language of Arkansas. The dialect is thick and melodic and he knows how to draw out the nuance of each line.

What really sets this movie apart, however, is the work of a fine cast from disparate places. McConaughey may be the star, but this film is infused with great performances.

From big names like Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon. Smaller names like Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson and Joe Don Baker. Plus some new names like young Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland.

Everyone seems to have a place in this movie. It all mixes together like a good gumbo and makes the whole feel as if it’s been seasoned by salt from the earth.

There have been a ton of movies this year that just seem to pass downstream without much notice. Here’s a tiny film that may slip past viewing, but it has more going for it than a dozen Hollywood blockbusters. Mud captures both the dark and light of the river and reflects it back in a film that’s surprising and savory.

If you like down-and-dirty storytelling, Mud will pull you in and roll you downstream with a graceful flourish. And like the river itself, the current in this story may seem easy, but the undertow is quite dark and deep.

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