Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Bonnie Sturdivant
Running Time: 130 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Matthew McConaughey's name is mud. No, seriously. That's actually his character's name in a film critics and audiences have been enthusiastically proclaiming one of 2013's best. And while I don't agree with that sentiment, it's easy to make a case. The southern coming-of-age drama undoubtedly has a lot going for it, making it hard to fault anyone for going crazy over an overly ambitious movie with actual ideas and two very strong performances, one of which comes from a child. It definitely works, despite the nagging feeling there's just a little something missing in the execution of what's admittedly top shelf material. The director is Jeff Nichols, who previously made the dramatic thriller Take Shelter, which fits into the same category of being a very good film occasionally flirting with greatness. He gets you to care about the characters without having to tell you to care about them and his stories often feel as richly realized as a novel. In this case, that literary inspiration clearly comes from Huckleberry Finn.
When two Arkansas teenage boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) happen upon a washed-up boat stuck in a tree on a small island on the Mississippi River, they make an even more intriguing discovery: A man living in it. His name's Mud (McConaughey), a grungy free spirit whose presence on the island is a mystery. What they do know is that he's from the area and on the run from something or someone that involves his old girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). But Ellis is having problems of his own as his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are divorcing just as he's falling hard for an older high school girl (Bonnie Sturdivant. With the help of Neckbone and an old friend from Mud's past, Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), he agrees to bring Mud food and supplies and aid him in locating Juniper. Unfortunately, it turns out that this man's problems are far greater and more dangerous than any teens should be involving themselves in.
There's absorbing sense of discovery in the film's early going because we have literally no idea what this guy's issues are. Since he's living in a washed up boat the implication is that he's homeless. But why? When we find out what exactly he's running the answers and explanations are considerably less surprising than you'd imagine, guiding the narrative into slightly more familiar territory than I'd originally hoped. That's not to imply the story isn't involving, but rather overtaken in a special kind of way by the atmosphere and performances. There's definitive deep south world created here and the plot points take a backseat to what's essentially a coming-of-age story for Ellis as he learns how relationships work and painfully begins his journey from child to young man as a result of the unfolding events.
As Ellis struggles with his own burgeoning relationship with the older May Pearl at school, an accurate (if entirely dysfunctional) image of adult relationships is reflected back at him through his parents and the love affair between Mud and Juniper, much of which exists inside Mud's own mind. It could even be more accurately described as a deluded obsession baring very little resemblance to reality. Which of course is exactly the point. Men trying to understand women they'll never quite be able to understand. And the big joke there is that we probably didn't need a movie to tell us that. But this one does, and pretty well. There's also a fairly absorbing action-adventure crime drama to go along with it when we realize the severity of Mud's troubles, which not only involve a woman, but the law as well. Still, everything seems to find a way back to his feelings for Juniper.
McConaughey is yet again cast against type, this time as a dirty, chip-toothed hobo pining over a woman he can never have. To call it the role a stretch is almost an understatement, but he proves to be up for it, effectively conveying layers of mystery to the character early on before the narrative takes a sharp turn, requiring him to be both pathetically desperate and a badass action hero at the same time. He pulls all of that off, in addition to sharing magical chemistry with his two young co-stars who both give really unforced, naturalistic performances. Especially The Tree of Life's Tye Sheridan, who has to carry most of the film's load as the male lead torn between how this mysterious stranger's love story fits into the fabric of his own life.
Mud may be the title character but Ellis is clearly the protagonist in every possible way, his actions and feelings guiding everything we see on screen. Jacob Lofland's role as Neckbone is the smaller, more cynical one but he shares some good scenes with Michael Shannon (as his uncle), who steals scenes a character who may actually qualify as the sanest and most direct in the film. Of course, he's still extremely eccentric and certifiably unhinged, but at least he gives somewhat sage advice and knows what the deal is. That he's playing a wise, calming presence (at least by his standards) should give you an idea just how messed-up these characters truly are.
If that wasn't enough, Reese Witherspoon comes completely out of left field with a supporting turn as emotionally and physically beat down southern belle Juniper that recalls her challenging 90's work in films like Freeway and Fear. It's a smallish and underwritten, but pivotal role that's built up quite a bit before she actually makes an appearance that completely delivers on the myth. At first, it's jarring to even see her playing such an edgy role and she initially seems miscast before eventually nailing it, reminding us that she was an actress before becoming a movie star and was always better at the former. It would take about five or six more of these types of risky choices to put her back on the track that McConaughey's on now.
Watching this, it's hard not to be reminded of the sun-drenched south poetically depicted in the films of David Gordon Green or even Terrence Malick. Nichols is in good company, despite this being a bit more conventional and less visually impressive. But it's ultimately about how men can't seem to understand women at all, and because of that, the film settles into a predictable rhythm that flirts with being formulaic at times. It's easy to tell where it's going, and to an extent, how it will get there. The ride itself is worthwhile largely because of McConaughey, who turns in what's probably his strongest work yet in this recent creative renaissance he's been enjoying. It's amazing to think that just a few years ago was starring in clunkers like Fool's Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. He's definitely come a long way, as this performance serves to only further erase those movies from our collective consciousness. As long as he stays the course, a very real possibility exists that he could be a future Oscar winner and it not be a joke.