The film that made McConaughey

Tomas van dan Heuvel

Matthew McConaughey is everywhere nowadays. By taking on roles in movies that struck a chord with audiences as well as critics, he has become one of Hollywood’s biggest names. Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, Interstellar, Kubo and the Two Strings, Free State of Jones… and more work is underway.

What makes this so interesting is the fact that he was ‘rediscovered’ after a period of unremarkable rom-coms and lawyer dramas. This ‘McConaissance’ has puzzled film buffs and paparazzi alike, and many are trying to point to the ‘ultimate’ movie reminding us that the Texan heartthrob could also handle some pretty complex and serious roles.

While I agree with Time writer Eliana Dockterman that it was Magic Mike which put the actor back in the spotlights, I want to argue that there is one sensitive, intriguing Southern coming-of-age-drama that made him the Matthew we know and love: Mud, the 2012 film by director Jeff Nichols. While it has had critical and commercial success, and has often been referred to as one of McConaughey’s first more serious projects, it has up to now never really been more than a mere footnote in his filmography. And yet, it is really worth a watch.

Mud revolves around two boys, Ellis and Neckbone, who find a runaway murderer in the woods along the Mississippi. This is Mud, a mysterious man who claims to have killed a man out of love for his girlfriend. The boys try to help, but get into more and more trouble every step along the way, and are forced to ask themselves what it means to be a man who can love and protect others.

Despite some plot threads being resolved a bit too easily, the film is a stylish drama, packed with dreamy, romantic imagery that somehow never gets annoying or over the top. The mysterious, undeniably American landscape takes centre stage and reminds us of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (the last of which is frequently referenced throughout the film). There is action, there is romance, and there are some serious reflections on young love, ethics and the relationship between father and son. The performances are great, and McConaughey’s Mud is the Matthew we all got to know and love: mysterious, yet relaxed; on edge, yet free; and all the while mumbling along in his distinctive Southern drawl: ‘Mud… call me Mud’.