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By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: PG-13 Grade: B+

Every critic out there has been talking about the recent transformation of Matthew McConaughey; we simply can’t stop going on about the former sexiest man alive, the Southern pretty boy who, apparently, after sleepwalking his way through “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” decided to wake up and tap into the full extent of his charming presence onscreen to create a gallery of characters that would define him as … an actor, and not just a face made to launch a thousand magazine covers. And get this – Matthew McConaughey truly is acting his butt and face off.

“The Lincoln Lawyer” kicked things off with a scruffy vibe, a little rough around the edges, thanks in part to the fact that it was based on a Michael Connelly novel. Connelly’s a crime fiction writer who knows a thing or two about the seedy world of crime, having spent years covering the beat as a journalist, so his insider perspective grounded “Lawyer,” but McConaughey was only getting started. The strange but true tale of a local mortician who befriends and then kills a wealthy widow may have convinced us that we had been underestimating the ability of Jack Black, but the movie “Bernie” also features a subtly lived-in turn from McConaughey as the lawman handling the investigation. No flash or action-oriented gunplay, just a simple man doing a not so simple job. As the titular psycho – amongst a host of offbeat characters – in “Killer Joe,” McConaughey got to sink his teeth into the bloody meat and rip it clean off the bone, but he capped it all off as Dallas, the stripper king extraordinaire in Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike.” Here we got the boldly brazen McConaughey, the Darth Vader of the sex world.

Which might lead us to the question – Where else could McConaughey go? He’s toned down his mega-watt charisma, modulated his Southern manners and accent to fit the tone and mood of a variety of pieces, and convinced us – well, certainly a jaded critic like myself – that he’s the real deal.

The next step is before us. Teaming up with Jeff Nichols – whose “Take Shelter” created a rupture in the indie film scene thanks to a chilling performance from the under-appreciated Michael Shannon and spooky framing that left us wondering if we were living inside the head of a crazy man or someone caught up in a metaphysical dilemma – McConaughey returns to his roots, the lowdown dirty South, the land of people living on the edge, surviving on love hard as bathtub whiskey and dreams of making it long enough to see another day.

Mud (McConaughey) is a fugitive, eating pork and beans out of the can while waiting to connect with the woman (Reese Witherspoon) that he’s killed for. When he meets Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), a pair of teenage boys eager for adventure, Mud flashes his broken smile, spins his tale and hooks the boys into becoming his most willing accomplices against the world.

“Mud” lazily picks at the scraps of Gothic melodrama and neo-noir, gnawing on the fat thighbone of the coming-of-age story. It takes its time, too, savoring each piece of flesh and marrow it finds. And while there’s nothing new in this Southern stew, “Mud” offers sustenance, especially in the bonds formed between McConaughey and his two young co-stars. Each boy is a distinct individual, in word and unspoken deed, and watching McConaughey play off each of them, we can see him responding to the different reflections they present, while clearing away the mud that blinded us to his true performative beauty.