Review: Mud (Sundance 2013)
PLOT: Two Arkansas boys, Ellis and Neckbone, stumble upon a mysterious stranger, who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and lives in a boat that happens to be shipwrecked in a tree. They agree to supply the charismatic stranger with food as he waits to be reunited with his estranged lover Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) even after they discover that he's wanted for murder.
REVIEW: For me, director Jeff Nichols is another guy who's three for three- with MUD being another winner along the lines of his earlier films SHOTGUN STORIES and TAKE SHELTER. Like the latter film, MUD is something of a fable, which probably finds equal inspiration in the early parts of Charles Dickens' “Great Expectations” and E.T- THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL- mixed with a big helping of southern Gothic and good ol'boy movies. The resulting concoction is, to me anyways, intoxicating.
MUD is also another piece of compelling evidence in Matthew McConaughey's transition from go-to rom com guy to indie leading man, and his performance in the titular role is another gem. To play the charismatic, heroic Mud, Nichols really needed a guy like McConaughey, making the character a solid romantic hero- whose only crime is killing the man who almost killed his beloved Juniper. However, Nichols doesn't seem to be interested in making Mud too Hollywood a creation, and it's revealed over the course of the film that he's more human and fallible than most other big-screen heroes, and that God forbid, the person he loves may not even be entirely deserving of his affection.
However, McConaughey is not really playing the lead, as the protagonist is without a doubt fourteen-year-old Ellis, played in a superb turn by Tye Sheridan. Despite his age, Ellis is a throwback to an earlier kind of boy- one more interested in the majesty of nature, and chivalry (him being quick to fisticuffs to protect a gal in danger) than anything else. In many ways, MUD is just as much of a elegy to a disappearing way of life as last year's BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, with Ellis' own days working and living on the river with his parents coming to an inevitable end and a move towards the city- which he dreads.
Running a lengthy, but briskly paced 130 minutes, MUD, is not only thematically rich, but also packs a whole lot of entertainment value into it's running time. It's romantic, it's funny, and there's even a bit of action towards the end- once Mud and his new-found friends are hunted by the mob-connected family of the man he killed (with their patriarch being prototypical good ol' boy Joe Don Baker of WALKING TALL).
As usual for a Nichols movie, MUD is stunningly photographed, having been shot by Adam Stone, in a way that's more stylized than TAKE SHELTER. The casting is also pitch-perfect, with Witherspoon having a meatier part than she's had in years, even though she probably only has about fifteen minutes of screen-time. Nichols' usual leading man, Michael Shannon has a welcome, extended cameo as Neckbone's neer'do well, but kindly uncle- who works as a pearl diver when not seducing the local gals by playing “Help Me Rhonda” by The Beach Boys, or playing hilariously bad on his electric guitar. Meanwhile, Sam Shepard comes along and steals every scene he's in as Mud's pseudo father figure- who Mud claims is an ex-C.I.A assassin- and just may in fact be that.
All in all, MUD was a real treat and hopefully once it comes out (in the spring) it'll find the wide-audience it deserves. Heck, even if you weren't a fan of TAKE SHELTER (but why wouldn't you be???)- you'll probably enjoy MUD. It's a joyful film, and thoroughly entertaining from start to finish.