There was a time when you could rely on the new Matthew McConaughey film being a stinker. Heralded by bus posters of him leaning on his romcom co-stars, McConaughey delivered wooden performances time after time, earning him the moniker "Matthew Mahogany". Those days are gone. After a string of hits, from the gritty Killer Joe to the enjoyable sleaze of Magic Mike, he is currently one of the most bankable performers in Hollywood.
He can be briefly found leaning with his shirt off as the eponymous Mud in his latest offering, but he’s channelling something closer to the great Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof than the likes of Freddie Prinze Jr. Indeed, Tennessee Williams' masterpiece is an evident touchstone for Nichols' third outing as director, insomuch as it examines the mendacity sweltering under the sunshine of the American south.
His follow-up to Take Shelter, in which Shannon (returning here) had his life torn apart by doubt, Mud swaps the storms of rural Ohio for the torrents of the Mississippi, but themes of love, loyalty and revenge loom large once again.
At the start we see 14-year-old Ellis (Sheridan) fleeing the seething tension of home to travel up river with his with best friend Neckbone (Lofland), ostensibly to examine a boat that has somehow become wedged up a tree. Their Huckleberry Finn-like escapades deepen when they encounter something even stranger in the form of McConaughey’s Mud, a bedraggled but engaging individual who becomes the secret friend to the two bored boys.
Mud wants to be reunited with childhood sweetheart Juniper (Witherspoon), but state troopers and bounty-hunters are on his tail, so he needs their help. But can his stories and motivations be trusted, and does Juniper have her own agenda? As the film progresses, the sweetly naive but brave teenagers confront the abundant lies of adult life, and in turn we the audience are left to ponder where real truth resides as the plot snakes like the great river.
It could do with some trimming, its script isn’t up there with Williams’, and its ending is a tad overwrought. But awesome vistas, directorial flair, and a superb support cast – from young Sheridan through to old hands like Shepard – ultimately make Mud a fine addition to McConaughey’s excellent recent work.
EXTRAS ★★½ TInterviews with cast members McConaughey, Sheridan, Lofland, Shepard and Witherspoon, writer-director Nichols and producers Lisa Maria Falcone, Sarah Green and Aaron Ryder; and a making-of featurette (16:47).