Someone must have a had a quiet word with Matthew McConnaghey around 2010 and told him he was in danger of becoming a joke. Lampooned in Family Guy and mocked on YouTube he was quickly transforming into the male version of Sharon Stone, a rent-a-pecks coasting along on his southern charm and displaying very little in the way of actual acting ability.
Whether the blame lies with him or his agent is a moot point. Movies such as Failure To Launch, How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Fools Gold cemented him as the go-to-guy for casting directors wanting to populate their lame Rom-Coms with a bit of male eye candy.
Apropos of nothing McConnaghey suddenly started making films worth watching. Whatever the reasons for his Damascene conversion McConnaghey's star has now never been brighter. After a string of great performances in The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike and Killer Joe people have started to realise there is more to McConnaghey than tousled hair and a killer six-pack .
In Mud, McConnaghey completes his artistic renaissance by playing the titular fugitive on the run from police and bounty hunters out to avenge Mud's crimes of passion. He cuts a desperate, weather beaten figure as he lays low on a tidal island deep in the Arkansas woods with little more than the shirt on his back and pistol in his waistband. A hopeless romantic he is awaiting the arrival of the flighty love-of-his-life Juniper (Reece Witherspoon), the reason he finds himself physically and emotionally marooned in the first place.
Two local teenagers Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) cruise upriver in search of a boat that is rumoured to be stuck in a tree and stumble across Mud and decide to help him out him. Their own home lives are far from idyllic and Mud's "badass" credentials make him an exciting male influence. With Mud unable to show his face in town they are sent on errands to sneak food, contact his girlfriend and scrounge the necessary parts to turn the stranded tree-boat into Mud's ticket to salvation.
Mud may be part coming of age tale and part slow burn thriller but fundamentally it is a story about heartbreak: marital heartbreak, childhood heartbreak and regular common or garden heartbreak. A character driven small town story told mostly from the point of view of the 14yr old Ellis its no surprise that writer/director Jeff Nichols struggled to get a Hollywood studio to fund the project. It’s completely devoid of sort of cliché and sentimentality you would expect from mainstream cinema and as a result is a huge breath of fresh air.
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Adam Stone and languidly plotted the movie is much like the Mississippi river it showcases. A real character piece, the eternity Nichols spent sweating over the script has paid handsome dividends. The cast of backwater hicks, small town bullies and strangers with dark secrets is thoroughly fleshed out and Nichols genuinely manages to convey a sense of authenticity that runs through this slice of rural Americana like the fluid and beguiling river at the centre of the story.
Nicholls wrote the part of Mud specifically for McConnaghey seeing him an untapped quality perfectly suited to this role. It was a gamble that has paid off. He is superbly supported by the modern Huckelby Finn/Tom Sawyer pairing of Sheridan (who was excellent in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life) and Lofland (amazingly appearing in his first movie) acting futures look bright. These three anchor the film but are surrounded by a talented ensemble with Sam Shepard as secretive neighbour Tom and the ever watchable Michael Shannon as Uncle Galen.
It is hard to imagine this type of film being made here in over populated Britain yet the central ethos that life is hard, and love is complicated will resonate with the residents of DeWitt, Arkansas as much as it does in Coventry, Calcutta or Cape Town . There will always be room in our hearts for dreamers.
I struggle to find any fault with this film which excels in virtually all areas. Arkansas-born Nichols delivers the sort of storytelling its impossible not to become enraptured by and this masterpiece marks him out as one to watch. One of the finest movies I have seen in the last few years I recommend this to anyone who has a heart.