Friday, May 24, 2013

MUD (2013) - Review

MUD - Directed by Jeff Nichols / Written by Jeff Nichols

Mild spoilers follow

Jeff Nichols' newest film, Mud, has more than enough strong elements to recommend it, which is why its third act turn into cliche is all the more disappointing. It's not enough to wreck the film entirely, not by a long shot, but it's still quite dispiriting. A better version of this film is out there, and it could have easily been in the filmmakers' grasp, but as it stands, Mud will have to settle for being a strong effort, rather than an instant classic.

Like Nichols' earlier works, Mud develops a great sense of working class characters and environments, something Hollywood has become increasingly alienated from. Set in rural and small-town Arkansas, Mud is the story of a 14-year-old boy, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), who, while exploring the local river islands with his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), encounters a mysterious homeless man known only by the name of "Mud" (Matthew McConaughey). "Mud" takes a liking to the two boys, and his laid-back but dangerous charisma gives them something to look up to.

Title notwithstanding, Mud is not about Mud. That is to say, it is not about the character played by Matthew McConaughey. Instead, it is about the idea of manhood that exists in Ellis' head, an idea that comes to be represented by what Ellis thinks Mud stands for. When Ellis learns that Mud is a wanted fugitive, he decides to protect his secret, and plans on reuniting the older man with his long lost love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

The cast is uniformly excellent. Sheridan, who was the least characterized brother in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life two years ago, is genuinely wonderful -- the movie rests entirely on his young shoulders, even more than that earlier movie rested on the shoulders of its unknown young actor, Hunter McCracken. Sheridan's performance as Ellis never hits a wrong note, giving off all the shadings of his character, capturing both the vulnerability of child that's not as mature as he thinks he is, the anger and impulsivity of a young man feeling real resentment and adult disappointment for the first time. Best of all, he doesn't come off for a single moment as a "Hollywood" child actor fresh out of acting lessons with his stage parents waiting just off set, something that have totally killed the film.

McConaughey, possessing all the sleazy charm that was absent for years but has made him such an exciting actor lately, is very effective in the title role, epitomizing the kind of guy two 14-year-old boys would think was the absolute coolest. He's essentially playing an overgrown kid, with all the values -- positive and negative -- that come along with that. The male supporting cast is a murderer's row of fascinating actors giving strong performances, including the Nichols regular Michael Shannon in a small role as Neckbone's guitar-strumming uncle, the underappreciated Ray McKinnon as Ellis' father, Sam Shepard as Ellis' neighbor with a past even more mysterious than Mud's, and Joe Don Baker, very welcome in a tiny role with maybe five lines total.

The female side of the cast does not fare so well. I'm not going to accuse the film of out-and-out misogyny, but it certainly presents a very, let's say limited perspective of women. Sarah Paulson does her best with an underwritten part as Ellis' mother, but becomes afterthought about two-thirds of the way through the film. Both newcomer Bonnie Sturdivant (playing a local high school girl who Ellis nurses a crush on) and the expected big-star-slumming-it-in-an-indie-movie Witherspoon are given roles that are, unlike Ellis' mother, intentionally underwritten -- ciphers that are basically there to play foil to their male counterparts. It can be frustrating at times, but still, Mud is a film about an adolescent boy and his flawed perception of the world, so this element can be justified, though not praised.

For most of its runtime, Mud is finely drawn work about a child's idea of adulthood, and about what happens when that idea is challenged and threatened by reality.

Then the last twenty minutes or so happen. The elements that derail the film had been lurking just under the surface of the first two acts, visible, but not yet a threat, like the snakes that endlessly crawl along the creek beds of Mud's home. But there is a moment towards the end of this film -- I won't spoil it -- after just about all of the threads and subplots had been tied up and resolved in a satisfying, organic way, that shifts the film, in the course of about two seconds, from a richly textured coming-of-age film to a pulpy, predictable thriller. And it is not a good shift. I was reminded of the scene in one episode of The Office when Steve Carrell's idiotic Michael Scott ruins his improv class's games by constantly bursting in, wielding an imaginary gun:

"Think about this: what is the most exciting thing that can happen on TV or in movies, or in real life? Somebody has a gun. That''s why I always start with a gun, because you can''t top it. You just can''t."

This wasn't enough to turn Mud from a good movie to a bad movie. Far from it. There are countless classic films that are constrained by weak endings or problematic elements, flaws that are nevertheless incapable of bringing down the positive aspects. Think about the patronizing, unintentionally comic "moral panic" interludes in 1930s gangster films, most notably Scarface, or the dull, mood-deflating speech by the psychiatrist near the end of Psycho. But one moment of sublimeness outweigh several audience-insulting scenes every time. And Mud is no exception. It is, for the most part, the kind of film that makes me proud and hopeful of the American independent film industry, and if it is one of Nichols' weaker outings, it is still enough to mark him as one of the most exciting directors of his generation.


  1. Perfectly summed it up for me. Jeff Nichols is becoming one of my favorites. Take Shelter is my favorite movie from 2011 and Mud, disregarding the last 20 minutes, is my favorite so far this year.

  2. He's certainly one to watch. Take Shelter was better, one of the best of 2011, though I think Mud had the potential to surpass it.

    Weirdly enough, Nichols says he wants to do a science fiction film for his next project. I have a hard time imagining what that would even be like, although I'm sure it'll be interesting.

  3. The real question is, is it possible to make a sci-fi film in rural Arkansas?