Has anyone ever been so perfectly cast as Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused? Sculpted entirely of charisma and cheekbones yet still seedier than a stash of gym-locker pot, McConaughey’s radiant stoner exemplified high school promise gone bad. He looked like the little man on top of trophies, just horny, stupid, sapped of ambition, and only likely to use his physical gifts for the least public-spirited of ends. And in the role McConaughey was as funny as he was commanding.
That cocksure lout, leering at girls too young for him, speaking only in manly aphorisms, isn’t an aberration in McConaughey’s roster of great performances the way Spicoli is in Sean Penn’s. The actor stamped his sumbitch sheriff in Lone Star with the same small-pond majesty, and Killer Joe, his finest monster, is an even more arresting warning of just how much a local hero can rot. McConaughey has mastered a curious niche: playing smarter, better-looking, and more commanding than everyone else, but only in closed, dumb systems. He’s the big shot at the tire store, the comely asshole who almost out-manipulates everyone else on Survivor, the guy you think you could resist until you happen to wind up in his sights.
It makes sense, then, that Mud gives him his own island. Plus a boat in a tree, put there by a flood. The movie, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is the latest in McConaughey’s campaign for reconsideration as a great American actor. He plays full burnout, a starving fugitive hiding out on a small island in the Mississippi. When discovered by a pair of likable local kids, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), McConaughey lays out the back story you might wish was more original. There’s a woman he’s waiting for, a crime of chivalrous passion, the usual thugs out to get him. Will the kids keep his secret—and even help him get where he’s going?
The mode here is boys’ adventure, the Twain and the Great Expectations mixed up with rural naturalism. The boys talk about “titties” and wear camo pants; early on we see them pilot a small boat down the tributary they live on and into the great Mississippi itself, a rousing sequence that suggests the danger and wildness of the adulthood they’re surging toward. At moments like this, Mud is honest and involving, touched with life as it’s actually lived.
The story is told mostly from the perspective of Ellis, a sensitive 14-year-old eager to fall in actual love with his school crushes. Ellis’s parents seem to be splitting up, so discovering Mud (seriously, that’s the fugitive’s name) and his romantic backstory offers the kid just what all movie kids need—something to believe in, even if it’s a secret friend stashed away someplace. It’s all a little like E.T., if E.T. were kind of a dick.
McConaughey, of course, is excellent. He shapes Mud into man, making a somewhat unbelievable character into a knowable fuck-up, a good-hearted bro gone to pot. We can believe that he might exist outside of the movies. Same goes for the kids, who seem kid-like even when called upon to do things kids don’t, such as articulate all of the themes of their lives in angry speeches. Nichols nicely evokes the ever-changing yet never-changing nature of life on the river, and the boys’ realities are well sketched. Both help out with their folks’ businesses, selling fish or dredging salvage. The director is adept at portraying physical processes, at capturing the pleasure and monotony of work, as exemplified in scenes of Mud and the boys working that boat from its tree, and also at the go-nowhere longing such work leaves you time for. Both Ellis and Neckbone seem to want something more than what their families have achieved—and neither is being offered any guidance toward making that happen.
It’s too bad, then, that a movie so attuned to natural currents in the end gets caught up in Hollywood’s impossible ones. As Mud and the boys work to make that treehouse boat seaworthy and send Mud and his troubled, underwritten girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) off down the river, bounty hunters descend on the town, and we’re assaulted with dispiriting violence. The climax feels like it could have been copy-pasted from episodes of Justified, the action comically out of proportion to the small story preceding it. This Boys’ Life movie becomes men’s adventure nonsense, right down to its fetishization of women being threatened by the bad guys so that the good guys get a chance for heroism—and a kiss. But the women, especially Witherspoon’s character, prove mercurial, disappointing to Ellis, the young romantic.
Nichols attempts to update the gender politics with a late speech from Mud, but the film remains wide open to complaints about its old-fashioned boyishness. Sometimes it feels like screenwriters are like the high school girls McConaughey’s Dazed and Confused character so prizes: We keep getting older, and they keep staying the same age.