Wednesday, May 1, 2013


There's such a sense of nostalgia that rails through Mud-- writer-director Jeff Nichols third film-- that it might be easily confused as a period piece.  If nothing else the film expertly infuses a bygone time period look as it wades across the river banks of the small Arkansas town in which it is set.  Meditatively paced, and harkening to a mythic style of storytelling, one of which that not just recalls the literary facets of Mark Twain, but also the cinematic beats of the Old West infused with the convention of ones coming of age, Mud, in its best stretches, lulls with a powerful beatific pull.  Unfortunately, the surface is whats coded with a special and enticing gloss, that the more you get to the bottom of the enchanting playground on which Mud is set, there is sadly not too much there.  But that gloss is dreamy and Nichols, if nothing else, proves a more than confident filmmaker with a flourish and sweep of the cinematic realm.  He shoots he a gracefulness and an economy, making no shot seem wasted or overly fussed about.  It's that confidence and ease of control that shapes this imperfect American film as something notable and refreshing.

Mud tells the tale of two young boys-- Ellis (a terrific Tye Sheridan, who was one of the sons in The Tree of Life), a sensitive, searching young lad and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland, making his acting debut), the more pragmatic and cynical of the two.  On a seemingly routine, boys-will-be-boys type of adventure, the two find a boat wedged in a tree on a nearby island off their riverbed shanty homes.  It's a beguiling and nearly poetic image from the start.  A relic likely transplanted there after a storm, but a perfectly engaging and surreal setup for a playtime adventure.  The mood and danger of Mud arises upon the arrival of Matthew McConaughey who plays a fugitive (referred to as "Mud") who has sought solace on the island and has claimed the boat as his own.  Afraid, but also intrigued, the boys wage to help the man.

Mud showcased another exciting entry in the journeyman rebirth of Matthew McConaughey.  As Mud, he is asked to be calming, romantic, fatherly and dangerous in the same breath.  It's a testament to his last minute resurgence as a serious and convicted performer that the once eternally trapped movie star of banal romantic comedies, feels and reads perfectly in sync with his character.  It's further testament, that within the stretch of a calendar year, the actor has travailed through fascinatingly imperfect films such as Magic Mike, The Paperboy, Bernie and this one, and seemingly revitalized all of them by his mere presence and sense of discovery throughout them. 

He invests more than anything a thoughtfulness to Mud as a lovestruck loner as he relays the story of his doomed love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon.)  This appeals mostly to Ellis who comes from a home that is one edges of coming apart and his teenage impulses are starting to coalesce.  Thus a plea is drawn-- the boys will help Mud in gathering food and spare parts to repair the boat in the tree-- Neckbone is drawn in more so because Mud promises him a pistol in exchange and as second fiddle to Ellis.  The most industrious and beguiling portion of Mud is in inception as the film delves into more conventional Old West terrain with a noisy and trigger-happy conclusion, nearly devoid of catharsis.  The overall tidiness of the conclusion seems a bit false in the onset of story built from the intriguing messiness of its premise and all the stretched truths and tall tales it tells.  But in the journey, Nichols creates a memorable and interesting mood study.  The supporting players are aces as well including unshowy, but tenderly drawn showcases for Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson and Michael Shannon.

It's nearly novelistic by design, but Nichols has a sweeping flow of the rhythms of character and intrusive visual scheme that is lovely to look at times.  If perhaps it feels a bit of come down from the bravura metaphysics he was playing with in his last film in the mesmerizing 2011 indie apocalypse tale Take Shelter, the promise and intrigue of an American journeyman filmmaker still looms strong.  Mud is certainly a film worthy of a look and a thought, I just wished it lingered a bit longer.  B-        

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