Film Review: Mud
I’m a sucker for movies set in small towns. Bonus point if said small town is on the fringes of rural Southern US. Double points for southern twang. Triple points if Matthew McConaughey delivers said southern twang. Twenty points for the writer/director being Jeff Nichols. How many points does that add up to? I don’t know, you do the math. This is a film review for god’s sake, not some mid-term calculus paper.
Needless to say, I had high expectations walking into this film. Both Nichols and McConaughey seem to be hitting a hot streak in their careers, coming off projects in which they have been highly-praised for their work: Nichols for his critically-acclaimed 2011 film Take Shelter; McConaughey for Magic Mike.
Mud begins when two boys, Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) find a boat that’s wedged on the top of a tree, only to discover the titular Mud (McConaughey), a charismatic fugitive who appears to be running from his past, has been living in it. In exchange for the boat, the boys agree to aid Mud to avoid capture and reunite him with his lover. What follows is one of the most riveting films this year.
The story of Mud unfolds like a modern day anti-fairytale; You get a near-magical image of a boat on a tree, an enigmatic yarn-churning figure in Mud, and his mission to reunite with his ‘princess’, Juniper (a pleasantly held back Reese Witherspoon). But of course, as we all know, there are no ‘happy endings’ in real life, and how Nichols lets this story play out is just fascinating to watch.
Sure, McConaughey gives what is arguably the best performance of his career (yet) as Mud, but the real stand-out of this film is Tye Sheridan – who played the youngest son in Terence Mallick’s Tree of Life – as Ellis, the main protagonist of this film. With the story being told through Ellis’ point of view, it’s vital that the audience connect with the character, and sure enough, Sheridan exudes this magnetic charm that hooks you in from the beginning, skilfully giving a nuanced portrayal of a no-nonsense-yet-romantic boy whose world is crumbling around him.
Nichols is no stranger to telling stories in the context of a small town, and he reiterates that strength once again in this film. There’s an intimate feel to it, one you get when a film explores the intricacies and inner workings of a tight-knit community, providing us with a great opportunity to take a magnified look at human relationships. Cinematographer Adam Stone (who worked with Nichols in Take Shelter) also deserves credit for the gritty yet breathtakingly beautiful imagery the film presents, so engrossing that audiences will have no trouble fully immersing themselves into the rural backwoods of Arkansas's Mississippi River.
Embedded in Mud is also a coming-of-age story for Ellis, whose parents – played by talented character actors Sarah Paulson (Game Change) and Ray Mckinnon (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) – are on the brink of divorce. Surrounded by a shroud cynicism from everyone around him, Ellis finds hope in Mud and Juniper’s situation, and romanticizes their relationship, desperately doing everything he can to help bring Mud and his lover together in order to keep the idea of ‘true love’ – and to an extent, his own innocence and naiveté – alive.
One problem some audiences may have with Mud is its pacing. For a film containing certain elements of a crime thriller – of which one might expect fast pacing and action to maintain momentum – Nichols takes his sweet time with the plotting, giving time for the characters to grow, the world to shape, and more importantly, suspense to build. Less patient audiences might find the pacing too slow, but with the solid performances, the beautiful visuals, and the escalating tension, all that waiting will be paid off when the film finally reaches its intense climax.
The phrase ‘instant American classic’ gets thrown around quite often, but Mud is a masterfully-crafted modern day fable that is the only film deserving of that title this year (so far).
I give it four and a half out of five Witherspoons.
Small town-based films enthusiast
“Mud” will be available on DVD in Australia from 6 August 2013.