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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review: Mud

Grade: A-
Verdict: Effectively weaving elements of a subtle, art-house movie and a suspenseful thriller, "Mud" is a thoughtful canvas for terrific performances from incredibly young actors. This modern-day Huckleberry Finn-style film portray's the male side of the "Cinderella complex," a term coined for the negative effects of the fairy tale romances we grow up with. "Mud" also confirms Matthew McConaughey's status as an actor whose career has been successfully resurrected from the rom-com graveyard. 

Writer and director Jeff Nichols, whose film "Take Shelter" earned him critical acclaim, has a lot to take credit for with this film. That said, this is a movie where the actors will steal his thunder - and deservedly so. Prior to the past year, Matthew McConaughey had never been an actor that drew me to a particular film. His career had a successful start with movies like "Contact" and "Dazed and Confused," but somewhere between "The Wedding Planner" and "Fool's Gold," his career took a downward turn critically. With both surprise and pleasure, "Mud" is easily recommendable for McConaughey's performance alone. The film also features amazing performances from young newcomers (Tye Sheridan & Jacob Lofland) and more established favorites (Michael Shannon). 

"Mud" is the story of two best friends, Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Lofland), who live along the river in a poor, rural town. When Ellis and Neckbone venture out to an isolated area to find an abandoned boat they've heard about, they meet Mud (McConaughey), a charming fugitive hiding from the police and waiting for his girlfriend, Juniper, to meet him. While Ellis and Neckbone do their best to help Mud forage for food, hide from the police, and reunite with Juniper, they become more involved in his dangerous world. Struggling with disillusionment in their personal lives and with Mud, they learn that love isn't always a strength. 

Second only to its performances, the movie's primary strength is its ability to help us relate to the boys and see the world through their eyes. Nichols coats his film with lush imagery and detail; roadside boatyards, Piggly Wiggly chain stores, and angry, muted whispers between parents show us everything we need to know about the world these children live in, removing the need for weak, expository dialogue. The comparison many have made to this movie and Huckleberry Finn is apt; for a more recent analogy, one need only look to last year's "Beasts of the Southern Wild." As with Beasts, the children in this movie begin to see the cracks in the flawed adults who care for them. Ellis's home life begins to unravel as tension between his parents escalates, and Neckbone is cared for by his deadbeat uncle, played by Michael Shannon, whose behavior hasn't matured much beyond adolescence. 

The complexity and difficulty of adult relationships is a primary driver for this story. It's often said that women suffer from a "Cinderella complex"; that the stories of charming princes swooping in and, after only a brief meeting, falling in love with them and treating them like princesses, has left them with dependency issues and unrealistic expectations for adulthood. The concept is a compelling one, but it's rarely applied to the male gender. It's fascinating to see a take on this from the opposite sex; both in Ellis's own personal relationships, his aggrandizement of Mud's relationship with Juniper, and his view of women as a whole. Viewers initially see women, through Ellis's eyes, as weak and fragile, characters who need the men around them to support them, who need to be saved. As the film evolves, Ellis begins to realize that not every female in this movie should rely on her version of a Prince Charming. 

Several acting nominations coming out of the film would not be a surprise, and it's the best wide release that's come out so far this year, in this reviewer's opinion (though film releases from January - April are never particularly strong). In spite of the serious subject, the Huck Finn/adventure side of the film lends some levity, along with Michael Shannon's portrayal of Neckbone's immature uncle. That said, one small criticism of this movie is the pacing. The movie feels long, and the pacing is a little jagged; we move from slow, lazy, quiet shots to frenzied action in a way that feels jarring from time-to-time, particularly in the film's final 15 minutes. But these are minor criticisms in an otherwise engaging and well realized film.

With his sophomore film "Take Shelter," Nichols displayed his abilities as an apt storyteller; with "Mud," he has taken this talent a step further by displaying his skill at driving actors to deliver award-calibre performances.
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