Thursday, May 9, 2013

Mud: An earthy, heartfelt character saga

Mud (2012) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence, sexual candor, profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

Gentle coming-of-age sagas seem an endangered species of late, all but forgotten as studios scramble to spend gazillions on fantasy epics and star-laden comedies.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan, left), his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) and their new
acquaintance Mud (Matthew McConaughey) check their tree's upper branches, trying
to decide whether they'll be strong enough to help a daft scheme succeed. But this
unlikely engineering challenge is the least of Mud's problems; he's wanted by both the
police and a gang of vicious bounty hunters.
That’s a shame, because intimate character dramas delivery some of our strongest movie memories. We’re often touched most deeply by the way we see ourselves in others, particularly during a well-told tale that depicts a familiar struggle for understanding.

Love fuels the action in Mud, a quiet, thoughtful little drama from indie filmmaker Jeff Nichols, who deserves mainstream acclaim for this, his third project (following 2007’s Shotgun Stories and 2011’s Take Shelter). Nichols’ strongest gift is the ability to place us within the world inhabited by his characters, in this case the rapidly vanishing houseboat culture of Arkansas’ Delta region.

Although 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) attend school in the nearby small town — a moribund community characterized by scrap yards, and where hanging out at the Piggly Wiggly is the height of local action — their lives are ruled by the Mississippi River. Ellis and his father (Ray McKinnon, as Senior) spend every morning selling fresh fish to local markets and restaurants; the orphaned Neckbone similarly helps his uncle (Michael Shannon, as Galen) dive for oysters.

At other times, the boys make their own entertainment. The story begins as they head to an island on the Mississippi, where Neckbone has found an amazing thing: a boat suspended high in a tree, a remnant of an extreme flood at some point in the past. Despite its precarious appearance, the boat is wedged quite tightly, and thus appears to be the perfect kid-oriented fort.

Unfortunately, this opinion is shared by Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a gritty, unkempt but personable drifter who already is using the boat as a hideout. The instinctively wary Neckbone doesn’t trust this stranger, but Ellis — more sensitive and trusting — allows curiosity to blossom into interest.

Despite the gun jammed into Mud’s hip pocket.

That notwithstanding, Mud does seem harmless, at least to the boys, and Ellis agrees to bring back some food. The mutual bonding is tentative but deepens quickly during subsequent visits, although Mud remains evasive about the reason for his presence on the island. That changes when Ellis and his mother (Sarah Paulson) chance upon a police roadblock during a routine drive, and learn that Mud is wanted for murder.

Now demanding full disclosure during their next trip to the island, the boys learn that Mud is waiting to reunite with his longtime love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). And yes, he killed a man: the abusive husband who hurt her badly. But this wasn’t a heat-of-the-moment thing; Mud acknowledges stalking the man after the fact, and then slaying him.

“There are things you can get away with in this world, and things you can’t,” Mud reflects, in McConaughey’s richly honeyed drawl, no longer fully aware of his young listeners. And we wonder if Mud is referring to his own predicament now, or the behavior of Juniper’s deceased ex.

Neckbone greets this latest revelation with eye-rolling skepticism, but Ellis is more willing to believe in the purity of a love so powerful that it would drive a man to take any means necessary, to protect his woman. Ellis’ feelings are driven by his own parents’ increased estrangement, and the threat of divorce: a potential crisis that wouldn’t merely divide his family, but also — due to the complexities of houseboat ownership and government regulations — would force them off the river.

As with any adolescent, though, Ellis can’t qualify his own feelings: Is he upset over possibly having to leave his houseboat because he personally enjoys the lifestyle, or because he knows it means so much to his father?

At the same time, Ellis’ emotions are further scrambled by his growing interest in May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), an older high school girl who — by the rules of the usual pecking order — shouldn’t pay him the slightest attention ... and yet does.

No surprise, then, that Ellis so readily embraces the mythic qualities that characterize the bond between Mud and Juniper. The plan is simple: She’s holed up at a nearby motel, waiting to join Mud so they can flee together. Unfortunately, the local law is the least of the lovers’ problems; they’re also being pursued by the brother and father of Juniper’s ex, and they’ve brought along bounty hunters to ensure that Mud gets taken dead, not alive.

With nowhere else to turn, Mud asks the boys to help with a frankly crazed escape plan.

Nichols has described this saga as “a Mark Twain short story directed by San Peckinpah,” but the latter qualifier probably isn’t necessary; Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn faced plenty of grim menace from the likes of Injun Joe, the feuding Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, and Huck’s vicious father. Nichols’ touch definitely has strong echoes of Twain, not only in his flair for naturalistic dialogue and the often bittersweet transition from adolescence to adulthood, but also in the formality and unspoken codes that characterizes this river culture.

Although Nichols secured an impressive ensemble cast for the adult roles, the film is — by definition — dominated by its young stars. Lofland is an untrained newcomer; Sheridan, despite a previous appearance in The Tree of Life, has the same naturalistic bearing. Nichols coaxes finely tuned performances from both boys, particularly when it comes to their expressive reactions to what adults say and do.

Lofland often functions as mild comic relief, each time the pragmatic Neckbone tries to rein in his impressionable friend. But Neckbone’s key quality is unconditional loyalty; there’s simply no question, no matter what the circumstances, that he’ll always stand at Ellis’ side. We see this devotion in Lofland’s eyes.

It therefore seems appropriate when Neckbone later grants similar allegiance to Mud; respect has been earned, and the boy responds accordingly.

Ellis undergoes far more complex emotional arcs, and Sheridan rises to each occasion. Many of his best scenes are pregnant with words left unspoken: Ellis’ efforts to penetrate his father’s reserve, and particularly the boy’s first encounter with Juniper. A short chat between Ellis and Galen is particularly touching, with the latter defining the responsibility that attaches to anybody with so faithful a friend.

“Neckbone looks up to you,” Galen observes. “Don’t get him into anything you can’t get him out of.”

Sam Shepard brings his calm complexity to Tom Blankenship, an intriguing loner who occupies the houseboat across the river from Ellis’ family. Joe Don Baker pops up briefly as the mastermind behind the team hunting Mud; Baker’s presence is largely superfluous, although his character does lead one chilling prayer.

Shannon, who has appeared in all of his friends Nichols’ films, deftly sketches Galen as an attentive guardian who nonetheless understands the need to hang back and let Neckbone blaze his own trail. McKinnon unveils unexpected layers as this story progresses; at first we assume Senior to be withdrawn and brusque to a fault, but we soon realize that this man deeply loves his son.

Witherspoon navigates the story’s most difficult arc. At first blush, Juniper is every inch the iconic ideal that Ellis has imagined, based on Mud’s descriptions: definitely a fair maiden worth saving. But real life doesn’t grant us archetypes, and Witherspoon shades Juniper as a clearly troubled woman who is, perhaps, too willing to make bad choices.

Sadly, people often don’t live up to our expectations: another lesson to be learned.

McConaughey, in turn, does great things with his character. Mud is a colorful eccentric, at times practical but also prone to droll fits of superstition, such as his beliefs in lucky shirts and luckier tattoos. With the smooth patter of a born snake-oil salesman, McConaughey makes Mud absolutely irresistible to these two boys; how could they not participate in such a great adventure?

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that Mud is no charlatan: He definitely believes in his cause. Most crucially, he uncorks unexpected bursts of wisdom, particularly where Ellis is concerned.

Even when real life beats you down, Mud insists, you cannot quit trying; hope cannot be abandoned. Great joy can be found in the simplest things, such as the warmth of fresh sunlight on an upturned cheek.

Despite so many striking, solemn encounters between these rich characters, as a whole Nichols’ film is too leisurely. He should have put more faith in editor Julie Munroe; at 140 minutes, Mud is self-indulgently measured, and — despite our anticipation of the climax we know is coming — our patience wears thin during the final half-hour.

Even so, Mud is a lovely, lyrical experience: a welcome respite from the noisy, hyperkinetic fare Hollywood delivers, particularly as we enter the summer season. And it’s certainly another coup for McConaughey, still riding a wave of impressive, career-reviving performances.

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