Tuesday, May 7, 2013

In Theaters: MUD (2013)

(US - 2013)

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols.  Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Jacob Lofland, Paul Sparks, Bonnie Sturdivant. (PG-13, 132 mins)

MUD, the third feature by Arkansas filmmaker Jeff Nichols, continues to explore similar territory mined in his two previous works, 2008's SHOTGUN STORIES and 2011's TAKE SHELTER.  In the gut-wrenching SHOTGUN, a small-town patriarch passes and the three sons by his second wife--who knew him as a loving, caring dad--clash with the three sons by his first wife, who remain bitter and resentful that their father abandoned them with their abusive mother and started his life over as a sober, born-again Christian, consciously choosing to have nothing to do with his first family.  In TAKE SHELTER, the great character actor Michael Shannon (the oldest of the first set of brothers in SHOTGUN, and a Nichols regular) plays a rural Ohio husband and father who becomes obsessed with building a storm shelter in his backyard for reasons he can't explain but possibly have to do with his mother being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the same age he happens to be.  In his first two films, Nichols focuses on fractured, troubled families in rural settings, portraying them as real people instead of cliched, condescending caricatures.  Nichols' characters face deep-seeded problems both psychological and genetic that stretch across generations and haunt them through their lives.  MUD expands on these ideas and is simultaneously Nichols' most ambitious and most predictable work.  It's raw and emotional and steadily balances a large cast of supporting characters, but being Nichols' most commercial film yet, it's also very calculated and calls its shots a little too loudly.  When characters start suddenly talking about things like snakebites and antivenom, and saying that one guy "used to be a sharpshooter," then there's a pretty good chance those traits will come into play in the most crowd-pleasing way possible.  That's not to say MUD isn't a well-made and engrossing film, because it is.  But because Nichols is going for some crossover mainstream appeal, he doesn't so much "dumb it down" as he "unsubtly foreshadows."

Returning to a rural Arkansas setting similar to SHOTGUN STORIES, MUD is the story of 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan), who lives in a houseboat with his struggling fisherman dad (Ray McKinnon) and his unhappy mother (Sarah Paulson).  He regularly travels down the river with his best friend Neckbone (scene-stealing newcomer Jacob Lofland) and they discover a small, abandoned island with a boat stuck in a tree, which presumably happened during a hurricane.  But the island has a resident:  a fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey), hiding from the authorities after killing the abusive beau of Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the on/off-girlfriend he's loved since childhood.  Mud and Ellis form a tentative bond as the boys keep his whereabouts a secret and bring him food and supplies and agree to help him get the boat down and reunite him with Juniper, who's hiding in an area fleabag motel.  Meanwhile, the dead boyfriend's wealthy, car dealership-magnate father (Joe Don Baker back on the big screen!) has assembled a team of hired killers (Baker is introduced leading them in a bended-knee prayer circle) to scour the town and track down and take out Mud.

After years of sleepwalking through terrible romantic comedies--a task he's apparently delegated to Gerard Butler--MUD continues McConaughey's ongoing rebirth as a real actor taking his career seriously, but still manages to get his shirt off a couple of times to keep his base satisfied.  He's matched by the fine work of young Sheridan (of Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE), whose Ellis is really the central character.  The naive Ellis, facing some growing pains with the pending breakup of his parents and convincing himself that the two-years-older May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) is his girlfriend, clings to the idealism of the relationship between Mud and Juniper.  He believes it displays the love and commitment that he doesn't see with his parents or with May Pearl, who starts giving him the cold shoulder after one date.  Ellis is able to overlook Mud killing a man because he did it for love, and reconnecting Mud and Juniper will, in his young mind, set things right.  In many ways, Mud is an overgrown man-child, unable to control his temper (he's beaten nearly all of Juniper's ex's), and just as naive when it comes to adult relationships.  MUD is, among other things, a film about fathers and sons and the cyclical nature of things passed down.  Ellis' dad demonstrates a regretful instance of violence, and Ellis himself has difficulty controlling his temper, cold-cocking at least three people through the course of the film because he just can't contain himself.  And the parent-child relationships that aren't fractured are non-existent:  Mud's parents were long out of the picture and he was raised by local fisherman Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard); and Neckbone is an orphan being raised by his uncle Galen (Shannon), who has moments of parental wisdom but generally still acts like a teenager.  There's been some criticism leveled at the film in the way it presents the female characters as cold, selfish heartbreakers, but maybe they have their reasons: most of the male characters in MUD have some serious growing up to do.

Nichols is able to effectively fuse his usual rural, off-the-beaten path drama with a STAND BY ME-ish "summer that changed everything" movie and MUD is a worthy addition to this promising filmmaker's already-impressive body of work (SHOTGUN STORIES is currently the most recently-made film to air on Turner Classic Movies).  It lacks the ambiguity of his earlier films (particularly the finale of TAKE SHELTER) but it shows that he can make a generally mainstream movie and still keep it recognizably his own.  MUD is probably guilty of going with a feel-good Hollywood ending (I'm sure there's an alternate ending that will be offered on the Blu-ray) that Nichols likely wouldn't have chosen if it was Shannon starring instead of the bigger box-office draw of McConaughey, but it's still an excellently-acted and very worthwhile and thought-provoking piece of work.  Currently 3-for-3, Jeff Nichols is a filmmaker you need to start paying attention to if you haven't already.

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