Monday, June 10, 2013

“Mud”: Southern Gothic Love and Strength

            In a summer movie season filled with tent-pole pictures such as “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and “Man of Steel,” it’s easy for a smaller film like “Mud” to be overlooked in the fray.
 “Mud” tells the story of Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a young man in Arkansas, as he carefully maneuvers a period of upheaval in his life. Ellis and his friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), journey one morning to claim a boat stuck in a tree on a river island but happen upon the film’s title character, Mud (Matthew McConaughey), hiding out. Faced with his parents’ pending divorce and the destruction of his way of life along the river, Ellis bonds with Mud and chooses to help him connect with his lifelong love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud must elude law enforcement and the powerful, violent family of a man he killed for beating Juniper, causing her to miscarry. Ellis has his own girl troubles; trying to forge a relationship with the very pretty, if untrustworthy, girl of his dreams, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). Ellis grows strong and confident over the course of this film, but he is slowly disillusioned of love and trust. Ultimately, Ellis’s angry cynicism simply doesn’t stand up to the powerful bonds of true friendship and family.
Written and directed by native Arkansas filmmaker, Jeff Nichols, “Mud” is a bit like the river that plays so prominently in its story -- sometimes beautiful; at other times, slow-moving. This is hardly an indictment, however; even the calmer portions hold one’s attention in anticipation of the adventure promised by Ellis and Neckbone’s perilous journey.
            Matthew McConaughey was voted one of People magazine’s “Hottest Bachelors” in 2006, but for “Mud,” he let himself go to seed. We never see him appearing clean or shaven, and the results are brilliant. I’ve never been a huge fan of McConaughey’s work, but he turns in a respectable performance as this film’s titular character, a fugitive hobo (not a bum, as per Mud; hobos work for their money!). Without McConaughey bringing an amiable humanity to his tragic character, it might have been hard to believe Ellis and Neckbone would have done all they did for him. Indeed, were it a rougher performance, we wouldn’t care ourselves about Mud’s romantic quest to ride the river into the sunset with the love of his life, Juniper.
            “Mud” features stellar performances from many of its cast members. Reese Witherspoon is almost unrecognizable in her authentic portrayal of Juniper, a barfly flirt who takes Mud’s love for granted but genuinely values their lifelong relationship. Sam Shepard perfectly plays Mud’s de facto father, Tom Blankenship, as an unkempt yet life-savvy retiree who can’t avoid the feelings he has for the boy he found in the woods decades earlier. A-Listers and venerable character actors aside, it’s Tye Sheridan who truly carries this film squarely and capably on his young shoulders. I remember seeing Leonardo DiCaprio in “This Boy’s Life” opposite Robert De Niro back in the early-1990s and knowing immediately that he was destined for a brilliant future in film. I’d like to say the same here for Sheridan, but honestly I’m not as certain about him. I see potential in Sheridan for stand-out performances in the years to come, but I think he’ll have to work harder at it than DiCaprio. I hope he puts in the work; I think many filmgoers will be grateful if he does.
 “Mud” is in the same ballpark as “Stand By Me” and even “Sling Blade”, but is sadly not quite in the same league. Another coming-of-age film, “The Kings of Summer,” was a Sundance darling and seems to be getting a lot of press. Given said recognition, this is no wonder.
Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” deserves to be known, shown and seen. Young teen boys should take a break from space men and super heroes to see what life is really like and truly about in this film. Likewise, people who want to enjoy a solid, down-to-earth story should not miss this valuable if understated offering, as well. Please do make the effort to see “Mud.” It might not be around long in the face of its staunch competition for screen time, but it is refreshing to see a movie wherein the stars are actors, not computer-generated effects.

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