Thursday, May 9, 2013
Mud Movie Review
Through its association with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn alone, the Mississippi River evokes something distinctly American, although even Twain was seizing upon the sense of adventure wrought by explorers from Lewis and Clark onward who ventured west in search of the country’s Manifest Destiny. The River is a dividing line between the east with its magnificent cities, institutions of higher learning, tamed land, and civilization, and the new frontier, lawlessness, and new beginnings of the east. More than that, the Mississippi is a mighty river, flowing hard and fast, washing away the junk people don’t want or try to hid, and occasionally carrying people southward, like Huck Finn and Jim, to escape.
I’m not at all surprised to learn that Jeff Nichols reportedly had his cast read Twain’s great American novel in preparation for Mud, a film that, more than any other recent film set in the south, captures what feels like the truth of both character and location. Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mud is primarily a coming-of-age tale, centered on a 14-year old boy named Ellis who lives on a riverbank house along the Mississippi in Arkansas.
He and his best friend, Neckbone, chance upon a boat caught in the treetops of a small island, a location fraught with mystery and sense of escape, with an image that haunts end evokes the surreal. There they meet a drifter named Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a man both on the run and hiding out, awaiting his childhood sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), whom he describes as the most beautiful woman in the world, like a dream you don’t want to wake up from. They have a tormented and fractured relationship and soon after meeting her, we begin to realize she has probably spent a lifetime taking advantage of Mud’s feelings for her. He needs the boat to make his escape and he needs the boys to procure provisions to repair it and make it seaworthy.
Mud is one of those rare film experiences that, while heavy on story, is not reliant on plot to push forward. As a director, Nichols takes us inside the world he creates as screenwriter. We come to feel like we know these characters even if you’re a northeast suburbanite and the life of an Arkansas river rat is about the furthest thing from your own experiences as an American. By holding us within the world of the river and its immediate banks for so long, when he finally takes Ellis and, by extension, the audience into town, it feels like a foreign land. You get the sense, then, that Nichols is trying to establish a conflict between town and country, between those who live off the land and depend on the river for survival and those who don’t. Ellis’s father makes his living off the fish he takes from the river. Neckbone’s uncle (Michael Shannon in a rare non teeth-grinding role) digs for oysters in the riverbed. In essence, town becomes a place where Mud dare not venture but for the bounty hunters out for his blood and where the boys encounter more danger than in a suspended boat in a tree.
The story is almost exclusively presented through the eyes of Ellis, who has reached an age at which his independence is as strong as it’s ever been in his life, and he has begun taking a more serious interest in the opposite sex even if he’s not quite sure what to do when he likes someone. His idealist’s view of love and romance is about to be shattered, the way anyone’s must at some point in life. The first cracks begin to show when his father tells him that his parents are going to get divorced. “But you’re supposed to love each other,” Ellis protests. His romantic idealism is what ultimately drives him to help Mud get back with Juniper, but what will happen when that bloom falls off the rose, as it inevitably will? As Ellis, the young actor Tye Sheridan is simply astounding. For that matter, so is Jacob Lofland as Neckbone and McConaughey as the kind of grown-up in adolescent arrested development. But it’s truly the boys that hold the movie together. Without those strong performances, out entire window into this world would be obscured. Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon turn in convincing performances as Ellis’s parents, and Sam Shepard makes a welcome addition as a cantankerous river dweller who is the closest thing Mud has to a father figure.
Nichols doesn’t quite close out the movie the way I’d hoped and it is a bit of a letdown to watch the mood of Mud give way to a big action sequence and decisive plot points. I can probably think of several ways I would have preferred the film to end. Weak as it may be in its final moments, it hardly detracts from everything that comes before. What lingers in my mind long after leaving the theater, in addition to the performances of those boys and the lives of their characters, is the beautiful cinematography by Adam Stone that captures the Mississippi river banks and sunlit treetops, and the feeling that somewhere out there are people just like this with boys just beginning that long journey from adolescence to adulthood and all the perils and disappointments that come with it.