Monday, April 29, 2013
Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
The degree to which Matthew McConaughey has attempted to change the trajectory of his career these last few years fascinates me, I must admit. He had spent the better part of the last two decades as not much more than a go-to scruffy alternative for fluffball romantic comedies. For a guy who made his start in compelling dramas like A Time To Kill and Amistad, by 2009 there were a lot more films like Fool's Gold and Ghost of Girlfriend's Past on his resume. He had become one of those actors that was essentially a stamp that said movie was probably going to be less-than-watchable, and seemed more than happy with that reputation (after all, acting is a job and a paycheck is a paycheck). But since 2011, his projects have become more interesting and he chooses his roles more carefully, noting characters that utilize his sexuality and charisma twofold. It's odd to live in a world where I have to take McConaughey seriously, but after watching his career-best performance in Mud, I seem to have no choice but to.
McConaughey plays a man named Mud, a fugitive wanted for murder living on a small deserted island in the middle of the Arkansas rivers. Mud is a wrong-headed fellow, a compulsive liar and pathologically superstitious (he wears specific boots, shirts and tattoos to bring him good luck, even when realizing that they haven't exactly done a very good job). The one noble aspect of his life seems to be his love for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), whom he's known since he was a teenaged child. Even as Jennifer has tried countless times to separate herself from Mud's animalistic lifestyle, it's always Mud who has come to her rescue when she's in trouble. When Jennifer is beaten badly by one of her boyfriends, it's Mud that comes to her defense, shooting and killing him. Everyone who knows Mud knows that Jennifer has only brought him trouble, but he can't help who he loves, and after murdering that man, Mud is stuck living in a hollowed out motorboat that sits in the thick branches of a tree high above the ground.
We don't actually meet Mud until he's already living in the boat, and his makeshift runaway's home is crossed by two young boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). The boys are best friends and are always hopping into their small motorboat to explore whatever they can find in the jankety waters. This time they spot the boat and they think it is the perfect place for a new hangout... that is until they find that Mud is already living there. Neither Ellis nor Neckbone appear to have much of anyone seriously looking after them. Neckbone has his Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), an oyster diver who likes to play a specific rock song to let Neckbone know when he's having sex. Ellis, though, has both his parents. His father (Ray McKinnon) delivers meat with Ellis' help, but his mother (Sarah Paulson) dreams of moving away from their river home and is willing to get a divorce to get away. Since she's the owner of the property, if she leaves the government has every right to tear down their home.
Going through his parents' separation at such a precocious age is a bit shattering for Ellis, which is why Mud's story of fighting for true love appeals to him. So much so, that he decides to help Mud is his pursuit to escape the island with Juniper. First, he brings Mud food and then he starts acquiring materials - with the help of Neckbone - to help Mud get the boat out of the tree and into the water. Neckbone is willing to help out after Mud promises to give him his .45 pistol, but Ellis is the one that truly believes in Mud and Juniper's romantic tale - since it's all he has left to believe in romantic love at this point. But as they continue to provide the tools necessary for Mud's getaway, the danger of helping this wanted murderer begins to mount. Mud, as well as Juniper, begin getting pursued by persistent, violent bounty hunters. Men hired by family of the man Mud killed. Ellis and Neckbone ignore the dangerous signals, though, hoping that true love will prevail in the end.
This is writer/director Jeff Nichols' third movie. His 2011 film, Take Shelter, was one of the very best of that year and had a performance from Michael Shannon that was so Earth-shatteringly great that it's a travesty he wasn't even considered for an Academy award. I don't necessarily know if Mud is on that level, but it proves that Nichols is a real filmmaker to pay attention to. Like Shelter, Mud examines a protagonist whose own mental stability is questionable, and both times Nichols is still able to craft a story around that instability that is both stuffed with taut suspense and sincere emotion. But while Take Shelter is strictly from the point-of-view of Michael Shannon's character, Mud is shown through the young eyes of Ellis. Trying to learn about love is hard enough as a teenager, but it doesn't make it any easier when every example you see is an absolute disaster. Nichols does a terrific job of keeping this theme present while still creating a balance with Mud's story of escape.
But let's get back to McConaughey, who's been more ambitious these last few years and it pays off big time here. He's never been better, more tender or endearing. He plays a man who's only dangerous because he spends too much time thinking with his heart instead of thinking at all. When Mud explains to the boys that he wears nails in the shape of a cross on the heels of his boots because they keep away bad spirits, it seems like madness. But moments later, when he's explaining that he can never take off his white button-down shirt because of the crosses sewn into them that protect him from snakes, not only do we find his superstitions winsome, we begin to wonder if they actually work. McConaughey spends most of the movie on the island, soiled and ratty with his front teeth chipped. It's not glamorous at all, but it's a role that embraces McConaughey's rugged sexuality and his "aw, shucks" personality. It'd be hard to imagine him ever being better in anything else.
Tye Sheridan is formidable as Ellis - it's a pretty complex, emotional role and one that might be difficult for a young actor to truly embrace. But Sheridan hits the right notes when need be, and guides the story competently. The film's supporting characters don't always have much to do (at times the movie seemed to have Ellis and Neckbone running around from place to place while all the adults hardly move from their set spot - perhaps that was intentional), but they're almost all casted brilliantly. As Ellis' slowly dissipating parents, Paulson and McKinnon do a terrific job of showing what each person is doing wrong in their marriage and that divorce is probably the best course for everyone involved. Michael Shannon has only a precious few minutes on the screen, and during all of them you can debate the importance, but Shannon is one of the movies' most dependable performaners, and he fuels the little time he has with great charm. As a secluded neighbor who knows more about Mud then most, Sam Shepard provides the movie with much needed perspective while also bringing an icy wisdom that most (if not all) of the movie's characters seem to lack.
There were a few of the film's final moments that seemed to be a whole lot tidier than the previous two hours seemed to suggest, but it's an overall satisfying conclusion to a fine film. Mud is a captivating visual treat, with Nichols continuing to show that his handle behind the camera is just as commanding as his compelling abilities as a screenwriter. Hopefully it's small, early-year release will not distract people from it's presence. It's not smart for any film to try and open against a Michael Bay movie and the week before Iron Man 3 no less, but hopefully good word-of-mouth (which this movie is sure to get) awards this movie the audience that it deserves.