There is a magic to a river. Barrier to some, avenue to others, a river is both a destination and a channel. It is sanctuary and peril, serenity and unease. It is an economy, a hope, a livelihood and a danger. For those who are associated with the river, something is either “upriver” or “downriver.” You are either moving with a current or fighting against it.
It is an enigmatic body of water such as this that anchors Mud, Matthew McConaughey’s best role to date. Its sometimes ominous, sometimes benign presence is in nearly every scene of the movie and could almost rate a nomination for best supporting actor.
That’s not to knock the film. Advertised as a “coming of age” movie, Mud delivers far more than that. This is not an update of Huckleberry Finn, nor is it a cynical version of Stand By Me. Written and directed by Arkansan Jeff Nichols, it’s a fresh piece of Southern fiction, superbly presented. In a fair world, it would be under consideration for one of the best pictures of the year.
The story centers on teenagers Ellis and Neckbone, who live on “the river” in small-town Arkansas. Ellis’ parents are hanging on to the tatters of their marriage; Neckbone is being raised by his uncle — his parents are whereabouts unknown. They form an intrepid pair, moving about on a dirtbike Neckbone built from scratch and on Ellis’ daddy’s boat. One morning, while exploring a nearby island, they investigate a rumored boat that rests high in the trees.
The boat is there, which they immediately claim as their own — only to discover the evidence of someone living there.
That someone, they soon learn, is a stranger who calls himself, “Mud” (McConaughey). “Mud” packs a pistol, chain smokes and has snake tattoos that are there to remind him “not to get bit.” He regales the boys with a dubious tale of being there in hiding while he awaits the arrival of his true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). When the boys interrogate him as only teen boys can, he spins a tale of shooting a man in Texas to protect Juniper, which has put him at the pointy end of the wrath of the dead man’s father and a herd of bounty hunters.
McConaughey trades in his usual heartthrob looks (though I’m sure there will be ladies who disagree with me on this point) and his insouciance for a measured coolness that borders on menace. He’s a complicated man with a complicated, if murky, past. Ask Juniper or Tom Blankenship (played perfectly by Sam Shephard), and they’ll tell you different stories about Mud’s true nature.
And while the story is about two boys trying to help a man reunite with his true love, it’s also a story about the discovery of the joy and freshness of love as well as the pain and perishability of that love and its devastating aftermath. Nichols throws poignancy overboard for sadness — viewers looking for the usual Hollywood “true love conquers all” story will be disappointed.