' Cinema Romantico: Mud

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mud

In the dark of the morning two young boys in rural Arkansas, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and the colorfully named Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), hop aboard a rusty motorboat and light out, and if it wasn’t for that motor and the walkie-talkies with which they have been communicating it might be easy to mistake this brewing adventure as being straight out of Mark Twain’s days. They motor up the tributary alongside which Ellis’s houseboat home rests and pause at that point where the water spills into the mighty Mississippi River. Neckbone notes the trouble that awaits them for venturing further. This is an exemplary illustration of two fourteen year old boys standing on the very cusp of leaving adolescence behind for the rigors of young adulthood. Into the river they go.


Their destination is an uninhabited island where schoolboy tall tales tell of a boat lodged high in the trees. Sure enough, they make this discovery for themselves, only to discover that someone else has beaten them to their dream treehouse and called dibs. This is the man named Mud, played by Matthew McConaughey in a linen shirt he wears for luck and a pistol tucked away for protection. He comes covered in grime and sweat and speaks in a drawl suggesting someone who has done his fair share of hard living. Every actor here is good but the recently resurrected McConaughey is stellar, playing a role that easily could have given way to a showy caricature. Instead he conveys both a temperamental man with secrets lurking and a charismatic man with the noblest intentions.

He is waiting on Juniper, the woman for whom he will and has gone to the ends of earth. She is played by Reese Witherspoon, an angel with a halo of cigarette smoke and sorrow. At first glance she may appear to be another in a long line of underwritten female characters but look again and what you find is a character whose depth and shading is almost entirely provided when she is off screen. It is other characters who tell us who and what they think she is and what motivates her. That we never know precisely is sort of the point because, above all, she is a beacon to our man Mud. He hopes to rendezvous with her and squire her to a metaphorical bed of roses. 

Alas, the requisite men in suits with slicked-back hair and guns wait to foil this plan for reasons not to be revealed. So Mud enlists the help of Ellis and Neckbone to bring the sacred boat down from the tree and patch it up in order to hatch a rescue mission. But before they do Ellis has a lone question: “Do you love her?”

There are themes aplenty in "Mud" but at the forefront is love – first love, true love, everlasting love, phony love, the way you can be in love and in hate with the same person at the same time. It is not merely about the long distance, time-tested love of Mud and Juniper but about Ellis’s infatuation for an older, taller girl (Bonnie Sturdivant) for whom he stands up and about the marriage of Ellis’s mother (Sarah Paulson) and father (Ray McKinnon) disintegrating. Even Neckbone’s Uncle (Michael Shannon) is introduced running afoul of a pretty lady who probably deserves better.


This is an awful lot of material to juggle in conjunction with the bad guys and boat repair but Jeff Nichols, a native of Arkansas and working as both writer and director, is in supreme control of nearly every facet of this superb film. The pace is perfect, never rushed and never slack, and, demonstrating the hallmark of genuinely great filmmaker, he possesses implicit faith in the story, never resorting to cheap camera tricks to tell it or punch it up.

His pen would do a playwrite – like, say, Sam Shepard, who appears here in a small role on the outer edges of the tale who has secrets of his own and will ultimately factor in mightily – proud. He tells us all we need to know in a few lines, several words. “You’re married. You’re supposed to love each other.” “Yeah, I don’t know about that.” Also, notice the scene in which Shannon’s Uncle makes clear to Ellis that he is aware he and his nephew are up to something but that he has trust in Ellis to make the right decision.  And he knows that in one of the most critical moments of all its build-up has been so monumental no words would do it right. Thus, he settles for a series of brief shots and a couple subtle waves of the hand that might very well have made this reviewer well up.

The only time "Mud" really steps wrong is in the climax when things not only are a bit too neatly aligned but become too overheated. There is the old notion of Chekhov’s Gun – stipulating that if you show a gun in the first act then it has to be fired later. If not, don’t show it. But not all rules are hard and fast and I suspect even Chekhov himself would acknowledge the need to occasionally tell rules what to go do with themselves. The film rebounds, however, in time for a few closing shots of clarifying grace. Boys have taken their first tentative steps toward manhood and men have re-proved that lessons never cease to be learned, but that as cruel as the world is some sense of ideals must and will be maintained.

Early on Mud sits beneath the trees with his two new best pals, glances up at the boat and remarks: “It’s a hell of a thing, ain’t it?” It sure is.

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