Friday, September 27, 2013

MUD Is Picturesque Adventure With Unexpected Depth

MUD Review:

- MUD is another piece of evidence in the unlikely story of Matthew McConaughey's rise from generic rom-com lead to one of the most interesting actors working in movies today. Between movies like last year's Killer Joe, and now Mud, McConaughey is now on the short list of actors whose appearance in film - especially an indie film - automatically puts it on my radar. But the actor isn't the only thing that's great about MUD. Writer/director Jeff Nichols crafts a fantastic coming-of-age tale that's like a modern-day Huck Finn - full of adventure, danger, darkness, and loss-of-innocence. It's a dark film, but also an oddly rousing one - a tale of boyhood dreams, about manhood, and love. I can't recommend it enough.

The main character of Mud is actually 14-year-old Ellis, a country boy who lives with his parents on a makeshift house-boat, along the banks of a river in Arkansas. Ellis is quiet and introspective, which makes him a good, odd-couple match for his best friend, Neckbone - a brave, smart-alecky kid who lives with his young, bachelor uncle and enjoys looking for trouble. Ellis spends a lot of time with Neckbone lately, and it's no wonder - Ellis' parents are having issues, and Ellis is eager to escape the darkness that clouds his home. One day, the two boys go to investigate a strange sight on a small island on the river - a boat that's caught up high among the treetops. The boys find that someone else has found the boat before them - a mysterious outlaw (McConaughey) known as Mud. The boys befriend him, and bring him food and other goods from beyond the island. But as they learn more about Mud and his ne'er do well ways, they increasingly get caught up in the danger that surrounds him. Many, it seems, are out to get him - the police, shady criminals - and it's all part of a strange love story, in which Mud is hiding out in hopes of a reunion with the woman who got him into this mess in the first place.

As Ellis, actor Tye Sheridan does a fantastic job, and really makes you believe in him as a boy in the midst of getting some of those hard life lessons about the way the world works. Many of those lessons come from his grizzled, gruff father Senior - played amazingly by Ray McKinnon. McKinnon is both a brute and a badass, the kind of father that, especially to a young teen, comes off as both god and devil, mentor and tormentor. He's balanced by Sarah Paulson, as his wife and Ellis' mother. Paulson has one of those oddly sweet faces that often seems to just-barely mask a darkness underneath - and that's true here. She seems like a woman who's been worn down by her husband's brooding stoicism. Sam Shepard is another actor who just knocks it out of the park in the film, playing a prickly, grumpy, shotgun-toting older neighbor who has a complicated history with Mud. Shepard is a real scene-stealer, and a total ass-kicker when called upon. Jacob Lofland is also quite good as Neckbone - his excitability a great counterpoint to Ellis' angst. Somewhat randomly, Michael Shannon appears as Neckbone's skirt-chasing uncle - it's a very un-Shannon type of role, but the actor is funny in the part. Finally, Reese Witherspoon plays Juniper, the elusive object of Mud's affections. Honestly, it's one of the best performances I've seen from Witherspoon to date - playing against type as an emotionally-manipulative and self-destructive woman.

As for McConaughey, I'm now convinced he is a lot like Bradd Pitt - at his best when playing characters who are edgy, strange, eccentric, or slightly insane. Mud is all of those things, but what makes him an endearing character is how blindly optimistic he is despite his difficult circumstances. It's no wonder the boys sort of idolize him - he's an outlaw who committed a crime of passion, and who's embraced a sort of makeshift Robinson Crusoe life on the island. He's this larger-than-life folk hero who seems genuinely heroic, and who is a gateway to a world of adventure and thrills. The ever-present smile, calm voice, and the twinkle in his eye give Mud a reassuring quality - the danger around him is very real, but Mud makes it all seem like some pulp adventure that he's a part of.

But MUD is not just about telling a pulpy adventure yarn. Instead, Nichols gets at the more grim reality behind the illusion. Ellis' learns that Mud isn't exactly the hero he thinks, and that his romance with Juniper is not exactly the star-crossed romance it seems to be. Ellis finds that love isn't quite so real or simple as he's heard. From Mud's complication relationship with Juniper, to Ellis' parents' increasingly rocky marriage, to Ellis' own shaky attempts at teenage courtship - this is a story about coming to terms with the fact that the world is a more complicated and ugly place than what we imagine as children.

Nichols shoots the film with an eye towards the scenic southern locales in which it takes place. There's a rustic, frontier quality to the film's aesthetic. Even though it takes place in the modern day, it feels like we're in a part of the country that is, in some ways, unchanged from years and even centuries past. It reminded me a little of the trapped-in-amber hills of Winter's Bone. Bottom line is that the movie looks pretty amazing, and there's a contagious spirit of adventure that permeates throughout, tinged with hints of darkness and ominous dread.

MUD is a really cool film that's both overflowing with atmosphere and character, and that also has a lot of thematic depth. Nichols (who before this, did indie flick Take Shelter) is definitely a director to watch, and McConaughey continues to have a moment where every role he touches seems to be gold.

My Grade: A-

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