“Mud, the movie, makes some sense of an age old muddle – Yes kid, that road map that made navigating childhood a relatively straight forward routine is no use once your hormones kick in and you realise the world is full of damaged people and broken promises.”
Review (text version)
Matthew McConaughey has been turning in reliable performances for the best part of 20 years but really seems to have come into his stride in the past few years on both the large and small screens – The Lincoln Lawyer, True Detective and of course Dallas Buyers Club. While the statuette handlers tossed him an Oscar for losing weight and doing drug runs, here’s something that sort of missed the attention bus and it never sinks or gets sticky… (that was terrible)… and this is MUD.
1885 Mark Twain’s book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is published and changes forever the shape and form of the American novel. His characters speak in a real dialect, you can “read” their accent off the page, they are people of a defined culture, time and place.
It’s primarily an adventure tale set on and around the Mississippi River where young Huck Finn assists a run away slave named Jim. It’s also a quietly subversive comment on slavery as a white boy comes to know Jim as a man, what motivates him and what moves him emotionally. For Huck, this is not just an adventure on the river but it becomes his “right of passage”, his “coming of age” and a confronting lesson in the harsh and unfair realities of an adult world.
MUD is a revisit to the world of Huck Finn, his pal Tom Sawyer with a reinterpretation of the run away slave element.
Ellis and his best friend, Neckbone, two boys, are on an adventure on a river in search of a treasure – an old boat stuck high in a tree, caused by a sometime earlier flood. What a prize! What a catch! But wait… who’s that gruff and scary guy watching their every move and why is he hiding on this island in the middle of a river?
Enter Matthew McConaughey as a run away con named Mud. He coerces the boys into helping get the boat ship-shape enough to make an escape and there begins a dramatic tangle of trust, lies, loyalties, truth and a journey from boyhood to adulthood.
Can the boys believe what Mud tells them? Should they trust him? Should they report him? Should they help him?
OK – that’s just one set of problems that young Ellis faces but he also has issues on the home front. His parent’s marriage is disintegrating in front of him and the houseboat on which they live is at risk of being decommissioned.
Now what I’m describing here sounds like “so what” plot stuff and writer director Jeff Nichols proves with this, his third feature, he is highly skilled in taking “so what” and making it deeply engaging. In his earlier films SHOTGUN STORIES and TAKE SHELTER he showed a delicate attention to the subtleties of a character’s growing self awareness and he does the same here but with a much younger protagonist.
I honestly think Mud is the best “coming of age” film – teenage boy to adult awareness – I have ever seen. So many try, so many get four-fifths of the way there and just sort of flat line. I’ve often wondered if it is a case of a male writer and director just trying some self therapy via film making and because they have yet to really grow up themselves, their characters remain half baked and adolescent. Nichols moves through and beyond the common faults and in the course of the film I really feel I have watched Ellis grow and change – a change that will last forever as there is no going back.
One thing that’s great about this film is that it doesn’t try to suggest that growing up and coming to understand things around you is going to be even remotely “satisfactory” as an experience. Shit happens, it hurts you – the girl you like doesn’t like you back; the people you put trust in let you down; and things that, just a year ago, felt like they’d be there to support you forever are now deserting you.
The two boys – Jacob Lofland as Neckbone and Tye Sheridan as Ellis – are both stand out performers. They are just so damn real and believable. Sheridan in particular has a heavy weight to carry on young shoulders. Despite McConaughey’s presence this really is Ellis’s story. You really do see this kid grow up in front of you and it doesn’t take 12 years and seven bad hairstyles to make make that point.
In discussing working with Sheridan, Jeff Nichols has mentioned in a number of interviews Tye’s great ability to listen – he’s not just playing in his close-ups “OK here is where I do concerned face” or “here is where I do slightly confused face”, Sheridan would really listen and react to what the other adult actors were giving him.
This is particularly evident in scenes with his Mother, so nicely played by Sarah Paulson, and in the few scenes he has with Reese Witherspoon, playing Mud’s long time on again and off again girlfriend, Juniper.
You might be thinking, “that guy who plays the father of Ellis looks familiar…” and you would be right. It’s Michael Shannon who was the lead in both of Jeff Nichol’s earlier films, SHOTGUN STORIES and TAKE SHELTER. He’s a very interesting actor and unfortunately here the character is given little screen time to develop fully. Likewise with Sam Shepard in a tiny role that ultimately has an important impact. I really like the way his back story is woven into the plot and while his moments on screen are few they are choice, but, it’s ultimately neither Shepard’s nor Shannon’s story.
It’s a difficult emotional territory for an early teen – trying to understand the complexities of adult romantic relationships – why his parent’s marriage is falling apart and the compulsive, addictive nature of Mud’s attachment to Juniper.
Reflecting on his ideas for the film, Jeff Nichols said…
“Well, let’s look at romantic love. Not just sex. But romantic love from a male point of view. So often the male point of view, a lot of it’s just about sex. Which obviously we think about a lot, but not Ellis. He’s just thinking about… literally love. And how it works, and doesn’t work, can it work. He doesn’t have an example of it around him that works. That seemed to be a slightly novel approach, I suppose.”
Yes kid, that road map that made navigating childhood a relatively straight forward routine is no use once your hormones kick in and you realise the world is full of damaged people and broken promises.
So we come a long way on this river journey – we think we’re starting out on a boy’s own adventure and end up in a tangle of love gone wrong, and yet it works beautifully as a whole. Nichols’ attention to detail in performances and a real truthfulness in the subtext the actors are playing makes for a very intimate and very real experience. I also really like the many scenes captured with wide angle lens camera moving with the actors through a scene as they move.
It gives Mud a very immediate and almost documentary feeling of time and place and presence. It puts you there on the edge of that river, on that island, with this re imagined boy once named Huck Finn, a run away man once named Jim and a confronting lesson in the harsh and unfair realities of an adult world.
© 2015 Greg Punch
Reference BluRay copy of film used for this review:
Production of “Mud”:
Brace Cove Productions
Photo of Matthew McConaughey Licensed under Creative Commons
Photographer: David Torcivia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Truth Entertainment / Voltage Pictures / Focus Features
Lincoln Lawyer (2011)
Lionsgate / Lakeshore Entertainment / SKE Entertainment
True Detective (2014)
Anonymous Content / Parliament of Owls / Passenger / Neon Black / Lee Caplin / Picture Entertainment / HBO
Take Shelter (2012)
Sony Classic Pictures
Shotgun Stories (2007)
Genius Productions studio / Multicom Entertainment Group Inc.
Select pages and illustrations from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain.
Original illustrations by E.W. Kemble 1884 (as appeared in the first edition) Published by Charles L. Webster and Company, New York, 1885.
Photo of Mark Twain:
1907. Sincere thanks to the The Mark Twain House & Museum
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
“Crossing the Divide”
“The Curtain Rises”
“Return of Lazarus”
“Danse Macabre – Big Hit 1”
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
Interview with Jeff Nichols about writing and directing Mud
Review #1 – Detroit Metro Times – Joe N08 May 2013
Review #2 – Daily News 25 April 2013 – Neumaier
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