“Mud,” the third feature from “Take Shelter” director Jeff Nichols, takes a grim look at classic Americana through the eyes of two teenage boys. The duo meets a mysterious stranger who entangles them in his troubles with the law.
The film stars Matthew McConaughey as the eponymous Mud, a rough and resourceful loner who has taken refuge on the island to escape murder charges. He enlists the boys, Ellis and Neckbone, to help him reach his long-lost sweetheart, Juniper, and escape from the police.
The role is perfect for McConaughey, serving as a solid continuation of the hot streak he developed in 2012 with “Magic Mike,” “Killer Joe” and “Bernie.” While Mud is a little less nuanced and a little more irritating than his recent roles, McConaughey adds his signature swag and charm to the scruffy character.
Outside of McConaughey’s performance, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson and many other supporting players are lost in seemingly insignificant roles. The most notable of these is the fantastic Michael Shannon, who is wasted in his part as Neckbone’s uncle and
Tye Sheridan, who plays Ellis, starts the film with a performance as flat as his one-note sidekick Neckbone, portrayed by newcomer Jacob Lofland. But with each passing act, Sheridan’s performance grows stronger until he is able to offer real insight into Ellis’ trusting nature and violent tendencies.
Sam Shepard also gives a standout performance as Ellis’ neighbor, Tom Blankenship, who has a mysterious past with Mud. Shepard plays the part with just the right amount of stoicism and pain.
Viewers will have to adjust to the thick Southern drawls, especially that of McConaughey, Lofland and Sheridan. Thankfully, there is plenty of time for the accents to sink in, as the film runs for a long two hours and 15 minutes. Though there are definitely pacing issues, Nichols manages to wrap everything up with a dramatic and unexpected bang.
While Mud is the center of the film’s moral conflict, it is his relationships with the other main characters that drive the story and give it an emotional backbone. His relationship with Witherspoon’s character turns out to be more complicated, desperate and sad than it initially appears, adding needed layers of depth. It also leads to one of the more poignant moments near the end of the film.
“Mud” has extra time and unneeded characters to burn. Still, it satisfies as an intriguing moral drama with a strong central cast and chalks up another tally in Matthew McConaughey’s win column.
A version of this article appeared in the April 23 print edition. Ife Olujobi is a staff writer. Email her at email@example.com.