Friday, May 17, 2013

"Mud" Is a Truly Great American Film

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, starring Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Joe Don Baker, Sam Shepard, and Michael Shannon - Rated PG-13

Even Vader had to deal with heartbreak...

Writer/director Jeff Nichols makes real movies.  After his impressive debut, Shotgun Stories, he ventured into different territory with Take Shelter.  Now, with Mud, Nichols has made another entertaining, thought-provoking film that feels like real American cinema. 

Being from the Midwest, I am forced to be defensive every now and then as this part of the country is the butt of many jokes.  For some people (key word: “some”), the Midwest and the South are home to a group of moronic racists who are all on the verge of doing violence to city folk.  That may seem like an extreme version of an American stereotype, but if you watch enough television and film featuring characters from the middle and the bottom of this country, you see that a lot of people find this area to be filled with terrifying people.  Thankfully, Jeff Nichols is around to combat that.

Nichols makes films that take place in Arkansas, but they feel like they could potentially take place in any small town in the Midwest or South.  Mud is more of a river film than an Arkansas film.  There have been many comparisons to Mark Twain’s stories of the Mississippi and that makes sense, especially because of the young protagonists.  I was more interested in the location and theme of the film than the Twain influence, if for no other reason than I am not that well read when it comes to Twain. 

Location aside, Mud is one of the best films I’ve seen this year for many reasons, chief among them is the theme concerning the disillusionment that comes with young love.  Mud may be titled after Matthew McConaughey’s character, but the real protagonist is Ellis, played by Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life).  Ellis is a 14-year-old who lives for the river.  His family literally lives on the river and makes their living off it, as well.  Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Nichols definitely has a gift for picking unique, simple names for his characters) spend every moment they can on the river, which is what leads them to Mud.  The boys find a boat stuck in a tree due to a recent flood.  As they are making their claim on it they discover that Mud has been living in it while on the run from assorted people.  Mud is hiding out while he waits to be reunited with the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).  The boys, Ellis in particular, decide to help Mud.

The motivation of Ellis to help a possibly dangerous man is what makes this film interesting.  He doesn’t help him because it’s McConaughey, and he’s so charismatic.  It’s because Mud is in love, and Ellis believes that love conquers all.  Ellis believes that he is falling in love, as well, after going on a date with a local popular girl.  His reality, and life on the river, is also dependant on the fact that his parents (the always great Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are in love and together.  When his own love starts to falter and his parents mention divorce, it becomes vital to him to help Mud reunite with Juniper.  Mud is his last hope that true love exists and makes everything okay.

Sheridan is the true star of this film, and not just because he’s a young actor who is not annoying.  He is completely believable as Ellis.  You can see the heartbreak in his eyes when things start to go badly.  Mud hinges on Sheridan’s performance and is a stronger film because of how impressive it is.  But he still isn’t the title character.

Which brings me to Mud himself.  McConaughey has been receiving a lot of praise for this movie, and rightfully so.  His natural charm comes through easily in the character, which makes you want everything to work out for him.  I don’t know that it’s his best performance, but it is certainly up there.  And, of course, it’s light years above those one-note characters that plagued his career for a decade or so.  Mud is probably the best example so far that McConaughey has returned to proper acting.

The rest of the cast is great, too.  Reese Witherspoon is fine as Juniper, even if the character is a little on the damsel-in-distress side.  Sam Shepard has some nice scenes as a mysterious, grizzled neighbor.  Joe Don Baker proves he’s still a commanding presence, even in a short role.  Michael Shannon is always a great addition to the cast, though his character is more of an oddity than anything else, what with his homemade scuba gear.  And Jacob Lofland makes Neckbone the funniest character in the film.  His inflections of the expletive “shit” are almost poetic.

Neckbone is not the only aspect of the film that is humorous.  In general, this is a fun film to watch.  While the themes of lost love within a small community might sound like miserable, pretentious, indie crap, it actually makes for a good time at the movies.  There’s even a bit of action scattered throughout the film, as well.  Honestly, for lack of a better term, Mud is feel-good movie.  That actually might bother some people who need their great films to be filled with grit and misery.  But the positive edge of Mud is not just there to please the audiences; it’s there because the story and theme require it.  (I’ll explain more in the spoilers section.)

There are multiple reasons to check out Mud: the reality of it, the performances, the themes, etc.  The important thing is that you watch it.  This is a unique and entertaining film, and it deserves a bigger audience than it has received so far.  If it doesn’t come to a theater near you, keep an eye out for it on video, at least.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Okay, ending first.  Normally, the overly happy ending would bother me.  Mud should probably be dead.  Some people are so unwilling to buy the happy ending that they take the meaning of the ending to be Mud in the afterlife.  But that doesn't work because Sam Shephard (who wasn't shot) is with him, and he's all bandaged up.  Do you really need stitches and gauze in heaven?  Anyway, I'm okay with the ending because Mud was not just a character in the film.  He represented Ellis's hope for true love.  If Mud dies, then that means Ellis will never be able to love anyone for the rest of his life just because his parents got divorced and some stuck-up rich girl made fun of him.  Hardly excuse for a life of solitude.  So with Mud surviving, it shows that Ellis's hope for true love took a bit of a beating, but it's still alive.  This would also explain the little wave he gets from the girl near the end.  So a good film doesn't require a negative, even realistic, ending if it sacrifices the entire point of the film.

I haven't really come across it anywhere, but I imagine some might want to compare this film to Beast of the Southern Wild.  I only want to point it out because I didn't care for that movie nearly as much as most people because I found it a bit pretentious, and the magical element seemed unnecessary.  Mud, on the other hand, doesn't need a giant animal trudging through the river or anything like that.  The boys don't need to go running around with sparklers and crap.  It's a real movie, and that's why it's better.  Also, Neckbone is a much better name than Hushpuppy.

I almost held off giving this movie a Vader because of McConaughey's shirt.  I loved that they made a point about him never taking the shirt off...only to have him take it off anyway.  To be fair, he only took it off when he seemed to have lost hope.

I was not expecting to give this film a Vader, but I honestly cannot think of any problems with it.  It just worked for me on every level.

No comments:

Post a Comment