Saturday, December 21, 2013

Movies: Mud ('Best of 2013' List)

Last year I finally got around to watching a film by writer/director Jeff Nichols called Take Shelter. The tone was pitch perfect, with an escalating sense of dread surrounding a paranoid protagonist that may or may not be reliable, or even sane. That film was such a pleasant surprise that upon finishing it I thought, "I must make sure to see what this Nichols fella does next".

Mud is what's next, and Nichols is the real deal. A true talent.

Houseboat residents on the Arkansas banks of the Mississippi River, Ellis, played by Tye Sheridan, and Neckbone (Neckbone!), played by Jacob Lofland, are two boys on the younger end of teenaged, sometimes helping out their financially strapped families by working (Ellis with his dad, Neckbone with his uncle), but otherwise getting up to mischief during the type of lazy summer most of us have experienced in our youth.

"Borrowing" Ellis father's motorboat, they sneak off for a day to muck about on an island down-river. While there, they come across Mud, a homeless man living on the island, played by Matthew McConaughey. As with the lead character in Take Shelter, Mud is a man who may or may not be a danger to himself and to those around him, and it's to McConaughey's credit that he pulls off equal parts charming and potentially-threatening in his performance, often simultaneously. Mud may or may not have a full grasp of reality, as he tells the boys elaborate tales of why he's on the island, and what might possibly be his life's complicated, criminal history. Or not. As I say, unreliable! But engrossing and inspiring for two 14 year old boys looking for summer adventure. The dangerous undercurrent is part of the appeal.

Part of the inspiration for Ellis is Mud's chivalrous side, which echoes his own philosophy. Ellis believes that if you love a girl (or a woman), that is The Most Important Thing, and you do everything in your power to protect that love, and be with her. Some of Mud's tales reflect that same world-view. The film smartly presents two sides of romantic love: as expressed by 14 year old boy it's naive but endearing, as lived by a forty-something emotionally fraught drifter, it's something else entirely.

Sheridan and Lofland give completely believable performances. Ellis is earnest and good hearted, but wounded, while Neckbone is an intensely loyal friend, but also has this pragmatic, "what's in it for me?" attitude that provides the film's natural comedy. These two young actors are going places.

In a recent interview, McConaughey said that in his forties he's realized life now is not about avoiding what you don't want to do (as he might have in his thirties), but about seeking out and doing what you really want to do. With the streak of, among others, The Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe (which I disliked, but he was great in), The Wolf of Wall Street, and Mud, this new career path is paying off, for him and for audiences. Those terrible romantic comedies he was churning out in the past can die a quick death, as far as I'm concerned.

More greatness:
  • Again, it has a character in it named Neckbone. Neckbone!
  • Reese Witherspoon finally has a character and film worthy of her last truly good work, Election (to be clear though, her character here is worlds apart from that one). She gives a terrific delivery of a line that gives you an insight Mud's character that effectively and poignantly cuts to the truth of the matter, all romanticized notions aside.
  • Sarah Paulson, in a supporting but pivotal role as Ellis mom Mary Lee, sets someone straight. My reaction to that scene: "you're goddamn right!"
  • Michael Shannon plays Neckbone's uncle.

Keep 'em coming, Nichols. I'm right there with you.

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