Saturday, August 17, 2013

Netflix This: Mud

     You may remember the preview a few months back: it's that one where Matthew McConaughey looks really grimy and there's a dilapidated boat wedged dozens of feet up a group of trees in a remote forest. But it would be a shame to write Mud off as just another average film starring McConaughey--it's much more than that. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who has created two interesting and original American films (2007's Shotgun Stories and 2011's Take Shelter [both starring Michael Shannon, of Boardwalk Empire fame]) already, Mud made its rounds on the film festival circuit in 2012 and had a limited theatrical release earlier this year. A southern tale about two boys coming of age and coming to realizations about life, love and death, Mud is an enjoyable film for just about anyone, a movie that's heartwarming and charming that induces smiles instead of eye rolls.
     A part of Mud's success is due to McConaughey's solid performance. An actor who used to take any romantic comedy role that made men look like fools and an actor that never explored outside of his range, Matt is having somewhat of a moment: 2011 showed that he could thrill and be freaky in The Lincoln Lawyer and the weird-but-watchable Killer Joe, in 2012 we witnessed his snake-like character Dallas in the great Magic Mike, and later this year he portrays an AIDS patient in The Dallas Buyer's Club, fully invested with a 38-pound weight loss. His performance as the titular character in Mud shows that he can transfix an audience with mysterious motives and a thrilling intensity, enchanting us into caring about this southern fairy-tale.
     The plot is all modern-day Mark Twain, focusing on two boys with stressed family lives who like to explore the swamps and bayous of the Mississippi River. Upon sneaking around a seemingly-uninhabited island, they find a boat hanging on the limbs of some tall trees. They climb up and soon realize--by discovering cans of food and porno magazines--that a man has been hiding (or living) inside of the boat. As the boys slowly get to know this island-dweller, they realize (especially Ellis, portrayed by Tye Sheridan in a breakout role) that the man isn't so different from them. He's in love with a girl, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, who doesn't do too much of note), and he's hiding on the island, on the run from the law, waiting for her to meet him so they can sail off into the sunset. Unfortunately for Mud, a murder investigation and a group of thugs trying to track him down throw a wrench into reuniting with "the one that got away". Mud's a southern mystery with a thrilling finale that really hits home due to the film's flood-like slow build.
      The acting is great, that's been established. Especially McConaughey and Sheridan as one of the boys. Fan's of Deadwood may recognize Ellis's dad, Senior--it's Ray McKinnon, the too-early-cancelled show's preacher. He's good too.  Even Micheal Shannon shows up as Galen, the other boy's uncle. But the real star is what director Jeff Nichols can do with a character-driven story. He's got an eye for beautiful imagery, and the southern setting gives him a plethora of picturesque scenes to work with: the bubbling water behind a boat, the setting sun over the Mississippi river, the swaying trees in a light breeze. It makes you feel like you're there, instead of just watching. It cements Jeff Nichols into the list of great American filmmakers.
     Mud walks a very fine line between being heartfelt and a little too saccharine, but luckily that line is very rarely crossed. The story of adolescence, boys on the brink of becoming men, and men who still haven't given up on the notions of boyhood love, is one that anybody can find interesting and watchable. Add a crime story that's unpredictable and a violent climax, and Mud becomes one of the better films of 2013, a year that needs far more films like this and far less than what we're seeing most every week in the local cinema.

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