Friday, June 7, 2013

Mud


Grade: 78/B+

Mud is surely one of the more heartening success stories of the summer. Jeff Nichols’ third film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival to warm but hardly growing reception, only to be released in April to wide acclaim and strong box office receipts. Mud has made $16 million at the box office and looks like it’s holding strong, so it’s a pleasure to report that the latest indie success story is also further proof that Nichols is one of the most gifted filmmakers of his generation.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) lives on the Mississippi River with his parents (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon). He and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) go to a small island in the middle of the river to find a boat stuck in a tree. There, they run into Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a strange man who asks the boys to help him find food, a motor for the boat, and his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). The boys forge a friendship with Mud, but they soon learn that he’s a fugitive on the run for the murder of one of Juniper’s abusive lovers. They also learn that the dead man’s father, King (Joe Don Baker), and brother, Carver (Paul Sparks) are in town for revenge.

Nichols has a great gift for low-key, simmering drama in the lives of working-class Americans, and the world he builds around the film’s story is often fascinating enough by itself. It doesn’t hurt that he has a first-rate cast in smaller roles (Michael Shannon, Paulson, McKinnon) and the wonderfully charismatic McConaughey continuing his recent winning streak as a man who’s laconic charm belies a sense of instability and danger. But the two main child actors are just as good, particularly Sheridan (previously seen in a small role as the youngest brother in The Tree of Life), a young actor who provides a strong moral center in a film that often deals in moral murk.

The heart of the film is in Ellis’ view of the difficulty of maintaining relationships, particularly romantic ones. Here, the film sometimes stumbles. Nichols provides all of the male actors at least one or two terrific scenes that gives some insight into what makes their characters tick, and Nichols does well setting up the dichotomy between Neckbone, whose primary interest in women is sexual, and Ellis, who is a much sweeter and more romantic boy. But the film doesn’t seem to know what to do with any of the female characters. Witherspoon in particular is wasted on a character whose motivations are sketchy, and most of the female characters function almost solely to break their respective man’s heart. Ellis’ perspective is balanced enough that it never veers towards misogyny, but it’s still an unfortunate step backwards compared to Nichols’ earlier film Take Shelter. Mud also shares Take Shelter’s flaw of setting up certain obstacles too obviously, like dominoes ready to be knocked over (one word: snakes). It’s a shame that these flaws come crashing through in the film’s more plot-driven second half. For a little while, when Nichols is mostly focused on the world and the characters, it feels like a masterpiece.

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