Mud is a beautiful, heartfelt tale: honest but not brutal; wise but not cynical
2Despite its ostensible modern day setting, Writer/Director Jeff Nichols’s third feature, Mud, has all the tropes of a period piece; the same period, undoubtedly, from which its biggest source inspiration – the works of Mark Twain – emanated. It’s a classic coming-of-age story, in the same vein asStand By Me, or even Great Expectations, with which it also draws comparison, and, whilst it may never quite sit equal amidst any of these superior tales, it comes impressively close. With strong performances, from its young and old cast members alike; frequently exquisite, Malickiancinematography; and an excellent mirrored tale of blind love and repeated life mistakes, set against a similarly-mirrored backdrop of an older society which doesn’t want to accept modern changes, Mud may well end up being the movie that you most regret missing at the cinema in 2013.
Ellis and Neckbone are just two adventurous teenage boys trying to escape their troubled lives back home; the orphaned Neckbone lives with his young and wild Uncle, who spends most of his time in a wetsuit searching for treasure at the bottom of a river; and Ellis’s parents are undergoing some sort of a separation – the knock-on effect being the loss of his riverboat home which, without his mother still residing there, will be seized by the local authorities, broken up and sent downriver. Escaping up the river to a small island, they happen across a small boat, lodged high up in the branches of a tree. Thinking that they’ve found some measure of safe haven from it all, they soon come to discover that they’re not the only ones to have found the boat – a man appears to be living there... and he’s got a gun.
The beauty in Mud is that, whilst overtly contemporary in setting, it harks back to an age long gone; with the characters seemingly trapped in a place which is, itself, trapped in the past – the whole world kept moving, but this one little part of town didn’t manage to keep up. For the inhabitants, time stood still, and attempting to see life beyond their river-house shacks is almost impossible; an alien concept. Only in this timeless setting could you have two teen kids spirited up the river to a tiny, deserted island, and encountering Mud there. The kids could have existed a hundred years ago, separated only by a few modern phrases they spout, the age of the cars around them, and some of the belongings they have.
Indeed Mud, himself, is the quintessential ‘escaped convict’ character that those familiar with this kind of tale would only expect the children to happen across. He’s the Abel Magwitch of Great Expectations. Hell, he doesn’t even need to have that same convict backdrop – his character represents that same stage in their journey, and the interaction between young and old echoes forth in concentric circles; mirroring events starting to take shape; mirrored lives starting to reflect.
It’s the great beauty of the film: it doesn’t seek to convey some deep socio-political message; some clinically striking insight into the human psyche – it merely seeks to tell its good old-fashioned coming of age story with as much rich depth of character and genuine resonance as can be afforded to such a tale. That, alone, gives the piece more layers than you would normally expect, whilst also making it very easy to both warm to and relate to; it feels comfortably familiar whilst, at second glance, remarkably well developed.
Over the course of the movie you get to see the mirror effect in all its glory – if you don’t know what I mean then you have to see it for yourself – but, basically, the relationship between the characters, the relationships that the characters find themselves in; they all draw beautiful parallels with one another. Far from being just another one-dimensional raggedy-man con, Mud himself is familiar to the children in many ways; he could have been borne from either of their backgrounds, and he’s still making the same mistakes that they are only just starting to make as children. The more we get to know Mud and the children, the more we start to realise the price paid for not learning from your mistakes; from not wanting to grow up and take responsibility for your life; for blind love and for not wanting to accept change.
At once taking us back to our own childhood years; childhood dreams and romances, Mud allows us to contemporaneously juxtapose these memories with our modern existences, offering up a romantic coming-of-age allegory steeped in the essence of everything that made us who we are today.
Central, of course, to this voyage, are the two teen boys, and the performances of the actors chosen are superb. Tye Sheridan takes the lead as Ellis, the lad whose parents are breaking up. We last saw him in Malick’s sublime The Tree of Life, playing the eldest son, Jack (who would be played as an adult by Sean Penn), and here he has shown yet further maturity in precious little time. Ellis acts old beyond his years, but lacks the wisdom that he would accrue with them, hurtling head-first into situations which only experience would help guide him out of in the future. This is that experience, and following Sheridan’s evolution of the character feels convincing, believable and genuine.
Unknown fellow teen actor Jacob Lofland is actually equally impressive as Neckbone, arguably a more understated – less prominent – role, but one which still carries some initially unadvertised weight and significance. Neckbone has already been made cynical by circumstance; his life lessons have already begun, but for him he still has to choose to have faith; to choose to move on and trust others – most obviously his seemingly wacky Uncle.
Achieving a hitherto seemingly unattainable level of consistency over the last few years, Matthew McConaughey could have easily stolen the entire show here, playing the titular character of Mud who, even when he is not on-screen, is the person everybody is talking about and everybody is looking for. Thankfully, though, McConaughey knew that graciously taking a back seat to the proceedings would only make his performance more enduring; putting in a fantastic supporting contribution rather than a good central one. Key to McConaughey’s assault on critics and audiences alike – successively knocking down any previously-cemented preconceptions we had about him – is his conviction in playing consistently unusual, against-type and eminently flawed characters.
Killer Joe, Magic Mike, and now Mud (with the likes of Bernie and the upcoming Dallas Buyers Club likely to follow suit) have helped shape McConaughey’s worth in Hollywood; his talent for capturing the oftentimes dark and seedy core of unconventionally gritty characters – frequently from the good old South – opening up avenues for him that an infinite supply of worthless rom-coms would have never allowed. Due to star in Nolan’s eagerly anticipated next blockbuster, the sci-fi epic Interstellar, McConaughey has pulled off one of those rare Hollywood comebacks: the kind where the actor manages to actually stay at the top once he’s returned there.
Further support comes from the writer/director’s regular go-to star, Man of Steel’s General Zod himself, Michael Shannon; adding yet another quizzical string to his quirky bow, playing Neckbone’s Uncle, another man who appears not to have grown up. Veterans Joe Don Baker and Sam Shepard lend their experienced talents to the proceedings, Shepard in particular getting to shine towards the latter end of the piece, although Baker also works wonders with very little dialogue indeed.
It’s Reese Witherspoon who’s the biggest surprise though, completely jettisoning her dominant wafter-thin romcom personas in favour of a much richer, and far less likeable role. Seemingly the combined source of all things good and bad in Mud’s life, her character of Juniper is part femme fatale, part damsel-in-distress; a flawed product of her own bad decisions, corrupted by her own nature and yet still, somehow innately tragic. It’s the fact that, in spite of everything, Witherspoon manages to evoke sympathy, that highlights the strength of her performance.
Mud is a beautiful, heartfelt tale: honest but not brutal; wise but not cynical
Writer/director Jeff Nichols takes these characters, and their fable-like journey – as relevant to olden days as it is today – and brings them to life with some fantastic performances, finishing off the production with an excellent score by David Wingo and veritably breathtaking cinematography by his regular collaborator, Adam Stone, who manages to transform some of shots into truly Malickian visuals. Indeed, as a long-term fan of Terrence Malick films, the Nichols/Stone combo here has only reminded me of just how far Malick has veered off-track, to a point where his visual opulence is meaningless; his imagery blurred into vagary. In Mud, the shots of the sun cascading through the trees, or a giant spider crawling across the cracked earth linger long enough for you to appreciate their beauty without questioning the capriciousness of the filmmakers behind them.
Mud is a beautiful, heartfelt tale: honest but not brutal; wise but not cynical – carried by its performances, bolstered by the backbone of Nichols’ strong screenplay whilst further shaped by his director’s eye. The end result is a tremendous coming-of-age drama that may well be one of the best movies of 2013. Not to be missed.
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