Saturday, June 15, 2013

Love: Mud

Despite a surplus of positive word of mouth, I'd sort of written off Mud as some inevitably exhausting bore. It read like the bastard child of last summer's big-ticket indie films: kids floating around southern waters, Matthew McConaughey, other know what I mean. There was little chance of Mud surprising me, and so I didn't run to it.  I'm a bit ashamed of this fact, of course. Not because the film proved me wrong, no (sometimes you can just sort of see the way something will unfold), but because that excuse is a terrible reason not to experience the nuances and methods of an individual story.  It shouldn't matter whether the trailers have made the outcome transparent, or whether we've seen material like this before.  A film like Mud is simply about the storytelling process. We're watching something slowly unfold, not flailing towards the inevitability of the ending.  
Mud is the third film from Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols, and he seems to have a knack for pinning down the way life in rural settings seems to accentuate the balance between man and nature. Here, the natural provides something of a fairy tale quality to the lives of young Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Loflan).  Ellis lives in a shack of a houseboat along the Mississippi with his unhappy parents. Given even a ghost of a chance to, he escapes on small adventures with Neck. Together, they're a modern Tom and Huck, a pair who get up to trouble in Piggly Wiggly parking lots and who take things in stride. Ellis and Neck have an enviable freedom, a lack of responsibility that finds them riding dirt bikes through the woods and slipping away to a deserted island in search of a boat lodged by flood waters in the branches of a tree. Of course, when they find it, it's already inhabited by a mysterious vagrant who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey).  Because this is that kind of movie, the kids strike a deal with him a la Great Expectations.  They'll bring him food from the mainlands. When he leaves? The boat will belong to them.

With Mud, Ellis and Neck are given a purpose. They're amateur detectives, scavengers, and assistants. Though they have no real reason to, they are drawn to the man, Ellis in particular.  Perhaps it's because he communicates with them without condescension, perhaps because they feel they can truly help, or maybe because sharing a secret builds a powerful bond.  Whatever it is, as the secrets of Mud's past are slowly revealed, the necessity of this connection becomes palpable in its energy.  What's surprising about Mud certainly isn't its concluding chapter, but is instead the individual potential of its characters. They have the ability to surprise us while remaining in character, and we become close to Ellis and Neck as we first realize that they are more complicated than we gave them credit for, and then as they themselves begin to understand that the adults in their world all house richer past lives and stories 
Ellis and Neckbone are written a bit like Spielberg kids, the sort you'd expect to find populating one of his earlier films, hiding away Mud like E.T.. Nichols allows them to carry the film and doesn't divert our attention to the talented adult actors just on the sidelines. Sheridan and Loflan hold the story up between dalliances with McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, and Sam Shepard. And though McConaughey here has a certain charismatic charm that makes for a powerful performance, he shares his scenes with Tye Sheridan, and the kid makes a good go of it.  

While the film's final act is unfortunately also its weakest moment, Mud has a life to it that makes it something better than our last glimpse.  Though the story shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone, Mud is a good, solid film made of sturdy stuff that's just plain better than should be possible.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. I haven't heard anything about this movie but good words, so thinking of putting this on my watch list.


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