Remember but a small few years back when Matthew McConaughey was a complete joke? Known as the Texan with a penchant for terrible rom-coms, it came as a great surprise to everyone, Matthew McConaughey probably included, that he was an amazing actor. In short succession, The Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe and Magic Mike have all revitalised this once floundering career. Maybe he just fired his agent. Whatever the reason, we have much to be thankful for – Mud has been hailed as Matthew McConaughey’s greatest performance to date, and has more stars on the posters than on the pavement of Hollywood Boulevard. And rightly so.

Matthew McConaughey plays the titular Mud, an escapee currently living in a boat stuck up a tree in the backwoods of Arkansas. His meagre existence is discovered by teenage boys Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and the appropriately named Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), and the boys decide to help Mud with supplies, reunite him with his one true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and shield him from the law. But as Ellis discovers more about Mud, and himself, he finds his naive faith tested by Mud‘s half-truths, the bounty hunters and the state troopers hunting for him, and the nature of his crimes.

Although Matthew McConaughey naturally receives top billing in Mud, the film follows the 14 year old Ellis, and it is sprightly Tye Shirdan’s excellent performance that sells the film – the key theme is Ellis’ adolescent character development in this coming-of-age film, and he nails the role. We see him listening in as his parents’ marriage is falling apart, looking longingly at the high school girls, gazing at Mud in wide-eyed fascination – Ellis doesn’t even have too many memorable lines in the film, he mostly just responds in monotone grunts and thousand-yard stares. But what stares they are. Mud is polished enough that it never needs to announce how the characters are feeling or what they are thinking – such is the strength of the writing and performances. As alien as the lives of Mud, Ellis and Neckbone are, it’s easy to identify with them – don’t be surprised if you become quite affectionate towards the lot of them.

One of the most interesting facets of Mud is the use of photography, combined with the score. The Arkansas river is so drab and dreary, the skies almost always grey, that it makes the film feel very true-to-life. The understated locations, along with that Stand By Me ambience of just following children around, play well with the slice-of-life scenes in Mud. This is at complete odds with the fantastical story line – the idea of finding a secret boat in a tree is akin to a fairy tale, for instance, and Mud’s exaggerated stories of assassins and curses and other superstitious nonsense has the distinct flavour of Narnia. The score is a perfect, fantasy-esque orchestral accompaniment, and several scenes are shot with swooping track shots, or slow pans up and down, left and right, that makes the film seem ethereal and out-of-this-world. This is a definite plus when you’re dealing with bounty hunters and mysterious tattoos and parables about snakes – it helps suspend disbelief during the more bizarre plot developments without ever going overboard and making it all look silly.

There are moments when the film lags a little. Ellis begins a somewhat one-sided relationship with an older girl that, although thematically necessary, is a little dull. A few plot points are introduced to create on-going themes throughout the film, such as Ellis’ parents approaching divorce, but never really play any other role than to explain Ellis’ infatuated devotion to Mud. The pace of the film also seems to take a hit of cocaine in the last 15 minutes, entering into a gun battle that while tense and perfectly welcome, feels completely at odds.

As excellently as the themes of adolescence are played in Mud, it can be a little on the nose. There’s not much more to the film than you could glean from one viewing, but as that meaning is a great deal more interesting than most movies, one can’t begrudge it being easy to digest. The mirrored paths that Ellis and Mud take are fairly obvious – you don’t have to try too hard to realise that Ellis is looking at a future vision of himself, lovelorn and alone, destroyed by naive devotion to someone who might not be worth it. Some of the plot points later are also obviously telegraphed, but it’s exceedingly enjoyable to see it play out.

Mud is a curious affair – a horribly hick and mundane setting with lovably flawed characters, a strange off-kilter plot that is at times shot like a dream sequence – but it’s a great chimera of a film. The performance by Matthew McConaughey is close to a career best, Reese Witherspoon sells the hell out of her few scenes, and we could be seeing the start of a remarkable pair of careers with Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. Mud is worth watching – but probably only once. It won’t leave you with any strong impressions past the superb acting, nor is it likely to make it into your precious DVD collection, but it’s worth the price of admission even in this most competitive and noisy season of films.

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