Everyone enjoys Matthew McConaughey as a bit of a loose spoke on the bicycle wheel and hope that he does a Dave Wooderson with each movie role. But somewhat quietly, the last few roles he has brought his A game to his performances, whether it has been as a morally corrupt lawyer or a scout for the Texas Rangers or the owner of a strip club. He does this again in Mud, an independent film that came and went, but garnered quite a bit of praise in the process.
The film is written and directed by Jeff Nichols, his follow-up to the quieter but just as critically formidable Take Shelter. Set in Arkansas, McConaughey plays the title role, a fugitive found on a small island by two young boys. The boys are Ellis (Tye Sheridan, The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Ellis' family is Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson, New Year's Eve) and Senior (Ray McKinnon, The Blind Side), and the couple frequently gets into fights over the future of their small fishing business. Neckbone is raised by his Uncle (Michael Shannon, Bug), who dives for clams. When the boys run into Mud, they find out that he wants to not only leave the area and avoid the police and local hit men who wish to take him out, but he wants to bring Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line) with him.
The film is marketed as one where McConaughey rules the roost, and he does spend a good deal of time onscreen, but the story is one that Sheridan and to a lesser degree Lofland carry. As Ellis, seeing Sheridan transform as a seemingly quiet kid to one with more confidence and bravado as he spends more time with Mud is fascinating and pleasant to watch. And seeing this transformation impact other facets of his relationships with people is just as amazing. The chemistry that he and first-timer Lofland share with one another is impressive, made all the more so with their time spent with Mud. The boys are certainly weathered from the environment around them and have a veil of interdependency and loyalty among one another. In one sequence, the two boys talk about a girl that they know that one of them is ‘dating,' and Neckbone is asking Ellis about her, with Ellis maybe embellishing a detail or two. It is the type of scene I am willing to bet that young boys replicated through the generations before Mud and will do again years after the film drops from those who have consciousness of it.
The above the title actors also turn in good performances. Witherspoon, albeit briefly in the film is solid, and McConaughey spins an occasional yarn in the introductory scenes with him and the boys, but as Ellis evolves in Nichols' story, so does Mud. Mud would seemingly be some fearsome guy upon first glance, but the more we learn about him, he is just a guy who would apparently be deeply in love with Juniper and just wants to be with her, with the purest intentions until something possibly went wrong. We feel that sensitivity within McConaughey and that is to his credit. The supporting cast all lend a sense of believability to their respective roles, and rounding out the cast includes Sam Shepard (Cape Fear). In a way they (along with McKinnon) seem like stunt choices similar to Quentin Tarantino on the surface, but like Tarantino, Nichols gets a lot of mileage out of their small time on screen.
The casting decisions are part of a passionate vision. Nichols makes the film so uniquely authentic and genuine, the only thing missing from this clearly personal Southern experience is a deep fryer. With the help of Adam Stone's cinematography and David Wingo's score, it makes the viewer feel as if they are dropped right in the middle of the country and the boy's lives. Say what you will about Nichols' continued work with Shannon in films, but Stone and Wingo have also worked with Nichols on multiple productions, and their contributions in this film are just as worthy of special praise of their own, making for a fascinating experience on each of Nichols' projects.
Ultimately, Mud is yet another excellent work from Nichols, and the performances of the stars of the film (particularly Sheridan's) are very good and well worth the viewing. The film is a touch long and the ending is slightly arbitrary, yet both acts are easily forgivable at the end of the film. And one thing is for sure, I will never appreciate "Help Me Rhonda" the same way ever again, unless McConaughey starts singing it.
Liongate rolls Mud out in an AVC-encoded 2.35:1 widescreen presentation, with the overall results looking great. Light peeks through the Arkansas forest and shows up in a lens flare and you feel like you have to squint, but don't. Black levels in the film are not too deep, but they do look natural and the film overall appears to have very little artificial light put into any given scene. Detail is easy to point out, whether it is facial hair in a sun-weathered Mud or leaves and branches in the woods. Solid viewing material for sure.
DTS HD-MA 5.1 surround for your respective ear muscles, and the soundtrack. There are some songs that are sprinkled throughout the movie, but the work in the quieter moments help make it a decent track. Directional effects are present and abundant, especially in the moment of the woods scenes where birds are chirping quietly and leaves rustle in the rear channels. When Ellis and Neckbone come across Juniper in a bar, the music can be felt seeping from the establishment and into the soundstage, The low end gets opportunities to engage the subwoofer when called upon to boot. In between Nichols, Stone and Wingo, you have a collaboration who has an excellent shorthand by this point and the Blu-rays that have been released seem to reflect this.
Several featurettes follow, starting with "A Personal Tale" (11:37), which examines Nichols' fascination with the story and what it personally means to him. The inspiration for the story is touched upon, and the stars explain their impressions of the story and on Nichols as a director. Nichols talks about how he works onset and with the kids in particular, and the cast shares their thoughts on the characters they portray. While on the EPK tip, the piece feels more comfortable and less formal. Next is "The Arkansas Ensemble" (7:11), covering the casting for the movie. Nichols mentions what he likes about the boys in the film and the kids talk about the film and the adults they work with. "Southern Authenticity" (6:14) looks at the location and production design for Mud and the challenges of shooting in the boondocks. "The Snake Pit" (1:30) looks at the key scene in the final act and yes, it was done practically. Ew. There is also a redeemable code for the Ultraviolet streaming service for a copy of the movie as well.
Mud gives the viewer a good performance from it's eponymous lead and what could be considered breakthrough turns by its prepubescent actors en route to one of the less than popular films so far in 2013. Technically the disc is solid on both fronts and just as good from a supplemental perspective. At the very least it is appointment viewing with an eye towards a possible purchase.