Matthew McConaughey, or “Matthew Mahogany” as Mark Kermode prefers to call him, has undergone a rather startling transformation recently. The type normally reserved for teenage boys hanging round radioactive spiders. The actor formerly known for throwaway romantic leads in How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days and Failure to Launch has started taking on proper acting roles in the form of Killer Joe; The Lincoln Lawyer; and now Mud.
It says a lot for an actor who is prepared to work hard at these smaller projects to try and re-establish his position in the market, rather than settle for a constant flow of paychecks for starring in films opposite Sandra-Bullock-a-likes.
Speaking of female rom-com leads, Reese Weatherspoon also stars in this film. And Michael Shannon, Sarah Paulson and Sam Shepherd. But none of these people play the main role, even McConaughey.
Instead it centers on Ellis and his friend Neckbone (the movie is set in the deep south) as they discover a mysterious, dishevelled man called Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who asks for their help in reuniting him with Juniper (Reese Weatherspoon).
As well as trying to help Mud, Ellis is also dealing with the separation of his parents; the prospect of losing his river houseboat; and trying to get the attention of a girl he likes.
In similar coming-of-age films (Super 8, Narnia, ET: The Extra Terrestrial) the fantastical is used as a way of giving the child protagonists more knowledge/power than the adults around them. However, Mud makes the conscious decision to make the world these boys inhabit a very adult one. This gives the film a startling realism which makes it easy to forget its certificate is only a “12A”.
What is striking is the way each of the character inhabits their own little world, which Ellis can only ever get glimpses of. Can he really trust Mud and his story? Does Juniper really want to get back together with? What are the real reasons for his parents’ divorce? Are his feelings for May Pearl reciprocated? How do Mud and his loner neighbour, Tom (Sam Shepherd) know each other?
The film manages to keep a good balance between characters and plot. In that, while there is a clear place the film wants to get, we are left to come up with our own conclusions about the motives or otherwise of most of the film’s main players.
This lends itself well to the idea that the characters are living, breathing characters and we are just happening to drop in on them at an interesting point in their life. Television shows like The Wire and Friday Night Lights are also experts at giving the impression that the characters live on regardless of whether there’s a camera pointed at them.
Allowing much of the plot to be character driven also allows gives the film a lot more depth and throwaway moments like a group of hitmen holding a prayer meeting for the death of their victim; or some beautiful underwater shots of Neckbone’s uncle (Michael Shannon) diving for oysters.
Overall Mud is a very enjoyable engaging film which manages to tell an engaging story in a well-realised, believable world.