McConaughey doesn’t get his hands dirty with “Mud”
Jeff Nichols' script is an excellent star vehicle, but McConaughey is still too glamorous to sell the role.
Matthew McConaughey is trying to change his image. He doesn’t want to be a pretty boy anymore. He doesn’t want to be known for taking his shirt off. He doesn’t want to just play romantic comedies. He wants to play bad guys, sleazy guys, tough, brutal guys. He wants to kill people in his movies.
Even when he is playing the titular character in his new film Mud. Mud is a man so obsessively, stupidly in love with a woman named Juniper that no matter how far she strays he goes after her, beats her other lovers senseless, even kills one of them, and then leaves her alone. If we are to believe everything the script tells us, Mud has been living on his own since he was eight or nine years old. When the movie finds him, he’s been living for a week or two on an island in the Mississippi, in a boat lodged thirty feet up a tree.
But Matthew McConaughey’s hair not only has those silly highlights but it’s fairly clean, as are his glistening teeth (even the broken one), his linen shirt and his stone washed jeans, with the $100 tear in just the right place on the thigh. He still looks much the way he looked in Sahara, or Fool’s Gold, or any of a half dozen other films. When he says he wants to be thought of as a serious actor he obviously doesn’t mean one of those transformative actors who gain or lose weight, use an accent, or even – throwing up my hands in dismay – get dirty. He just wants to do interesting scripts with interesting directors. And that he has done with Mud.
Jeff Nichols also directed the compelling Take Shelter with Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. He wrote that script and he has written this one. His writing is dense and intense. Characters from a poor, rural background live lives isolated from each other, and violence and brutality are near and known vibrations.
Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, as in almost everything he does, brilliantly walks a tightrope between explosive madness and rigid normalcy. In Mud, Nichols has chosen a broader canvas, a story with more ancillary plots and more characters. There are, as in all of his movies, a limited number of locations and the danger and the beauty of the natural world is right outside the doorway of any human habitation.
Nichols doesn’t handle a more complicated story and more characters well. He takes his time with things and that is nice but it can lead slowly to nowhere when you start dealing with unnecessary characters and their storylines, especially when they don’t directly affect the main plot. Shannon, whom I suspect became a friend during the shooting of Take Shelter, plays the stepfather of one of the boys who finds and tries to help Mud. A lot of time is spent with him and his independent-oyster-fisherman-diving-outfit but it offers neither an obstacle nor a relief to the problems of his step-son. And if Nichols is working on a metaphor he’s not getting his work done.
The two young boys give nice performances. Maybe too nice. But everything is painted outward from the sun and McConaughey is the sun in this universe and he has the highlights and the smile going for him so why should anyone else get down and dirty and bring us a little reality? Sam Shepard, as a friend and mentor of Mud, does bring a level of frustrated reality to his performance. But it isn’t enough.
Mud opens Friday, April 26th at the Downer Theater.