Thursday, July 11, 2013


On the heels of his debut feature, Shotgun Stories (which I loved) and his more widely seen follow-up, Take Shelter (which I liked, with some reservations), writer-director Jeff Nichols has quietly emerged as one of my favorite movie storytellers on the subject of the aching, punch-drunk heart of the American underclass. In his newest, Mud, he has offered up his most narratively conventional movie, one that feels, in its roots of boyhood restlessness and fantasies of escape, like a tall tale spun by a realist with romance in his bones. 

Matthew McConaughey is the titular figure of mystery, a river island recluse discovered by two bored, adventurous young boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) who boat to the spot where he’s hiding in search of a boat impossibly nestled high in a tree which Neckbone claims to have seen. They find the boat and discover Mud living in it, subsisting on canned food and whatever fish he can snatch out of the river. He befriends the boys with tales of past loves and past crimes which may or may not be entirely true—Mud claims to have killed a man who seduced and humiliated Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the woman he loves-- and entreats them both to keep his whereabouts secret until he, with their help, can get the boat down from its perch, rescue his fair maiden (who Ellis has spotted skulking down the aisles of the local Piggly Wiggly) and sail off into the life together they've always been denied. 

As Mud’s story develops, so too does a sense that we may be one step ahead of the director as far as the plot goes. But the movie has a seductive, almost undulating quality about it that keeps the audience slightly off balance, and enough almost subliminally syncopated beats to suggest a heart that has its own special intent. Gordon teases beauty and dread out of the mundane surroundings of the boys’ hometown as well as the gorgeously rendered riverside Arkansas landscapes; there are mysterious, dread-infused shots of creeping wildlife and magnificently ominous views of a great, still body of water pouring out into an ocean of unknowable vastness that seem to promise freedom. All the while, the tendencies of Terence Malick or early David Gordon Green toward weighing the imagery down with preciousness, unearned sentiment or insistent visual allusions are cleanly avoided. There is little sense that Gordon has anything but the story he's ostensibly there to spin forefront in his heart and mind.

is populated with men and boys who have been, in one way or another, abandoned by the women in their lives, but it hasn't been fashioned as a plea for undue sympathy on behalf of Males Behaving Ignorantly. Nichols is smart enough to trust the audience to feel sympathy for both sides of the equation—it’s never shrill or judgmental, even when it’s apparent that it’s the men who are operating more blindly on stubborn expectations of the way life should be. Mud's idealized fantasy projections of Juniper are pretty clearly delusional right from the start, even as the facts of their separation seem to line up with his version of the story. But again, the movie holds him responsible for not being able to disassociate himself from her behavior when he can clearly see that she's not measuring up to his (impossible?) ideal. And the movie holds sympathy for her in that she's as lost as he is-- she's never turned into a demon. Ellis' mom (Sarah Paulson) is in subdued conflict with her husband (Ray McKinnon), a conflict her son can’t help but sense and internalize. She wants to pack their marriage in and move out of the couple’s ramshackle houseboat, but the movie seems entirely sympathetic to her point of view even as it also makes room for the feelings of the men and their resistance to having their life on the river up-ended. And even Ellis' would-be girlfriend May Pearl isn’t depicted as vicious-- she's just an immature teenaged girl who likes the attention she gets from this scrappy kid three years or so her junior, even though she has no intention of reciprocating it.
As has been true in his two previous films, Nichols finds ways (and not always the most obvious ones) to make the people breathe among their surroundings in a way that should be the envy of lesser talents (like The Paperboy’s Lee Daniels, for example) who seek to steam up Southern atmospherics without a thought to what would make anyone want to live in the region in the first place. Mud also shares with Bernie and Killer Joe a distinct resistance toward broad, conveniently condescending caricatures of Southern eccentricity, a trait perhaps further reinforced by McConaughey's presence as well as Nichols’ own sensitivity, as a native Arkansan, to the insistent allure of a place most would dismiss as hopelessly backwater. 

McConaughey is mesmerizing as Mud, a man whose sense of pride has never left him, even if his face can’t help but reflect the harshness of his life of exile. He has a weariness in his movement to go with slightly wild eyes and a broken front tooth, all of which bear witness to the imperfection and derailed life of a man who, in another life, might have been heartened instead of hollowed out by love. In addition to McConaughey's excellent turn-- which, after The Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe, Bernie, Magic Mike and even a howling swamp mutt like The Paperboy, should no longer come as a surprise-- Nichols coaxes fine work from capable and underappreciated character actors like Witherspoon, who looks beautifully worn, artfully shading the reality behind the image of her that Mud sells to himself and the boys. Even in her sullenness she can’t quite hide the pleasure taken in getting to do something other than a robotically pitched rom-com.

Also excellent are Ray McKinnon, as Ellis' sorrowful dad, beleaguered by all the ways he's fallen short for his son, his wife and himself; Sarah Paulson, gracefully avoiding histrionics; and Sam Shepard,  aging with a cantankerously pleasing touch of vinegar as Tom, a reclusive loner whose military past, perhaps yet another of Mud's colorful elaborations, may hold the key to Mud's murky future, and surely comes into play just when all romantic fantasies look ready to finally yield to genre-inflected reality. And certainly the movie wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without the thoughtful, unforced work of its young lead and his cohort in adventure. Both Sheridan and Lofland, but especially Sheridan as Ellis, are naturally appealing and realistically bitter-- Boy’s Life candidates who have already seen enough jagged edges to make them suspicious of any stranger. But they’re also ready for the challenge of helping Mud, holding as it does the promise of bridging the life of a free-floating teen to the responsibility of edging toward adulthood. Mud has some of the trappings of a genre that has come to earn an audience’s dread—the coming of age story—but in these two young actors' hands the ambiguous tension of growing up never yields to easy sentimentality. Sheridan’s in particular is a terrific performance.

Mud does take a rather too obvious turn to the melodramatic during its conclusion, after holding us so effortlessly with its easy, unforced rhythms throughout. But I still prefer this rather more routine wrap-up, with its nifty visual red herring that undercuts the audience's expectation of the inevitable, to the indecisiveness of Take Shelter's apocalyptic finish, which I feel never came down for its lead character's sanity or delusion in a satisfying way. In his own fashion, Mud is surely as cracked as Michael Shannon's storm-obsessed dad, but in his new movie Nichols is content to let us empathize with this man's delusions, the sense that for characters like Mud, Ellis and even Tom and Ellis's parents, there might be as much hope for yet another regenerative dream as there is pain for the ones most recently shattered.


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