Mud

13 May

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Mud is the third film from writer and director Jeff Nichols, following 2007’s Shotgun Stories and 2011’s magnificent Take Shelter. For the first time not looking to Michael Shannon for a leading role, Nichols casts Matthew McConaughey as the eponymous protagonist.

Whilst he may take on the role of the title character, McConaughey has to share the limelight with Tye Sheridan, adopting the role of 14-year-old Ellis. The story begins in Arkansas when Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) head out on a boat to an island where they know of a boat that has ended up lodged high in the tree tops, apparently finding it’s way there after some floods.

Whilst looking around the boat, Ellis discovers that somebody else is living there. Shortly after, we meet Mud. We learn early that he is currently homeless and, initially wary of the stranger, the two teenagers come to do him favours. We learn that Mud has a secret (one that is revealed early on in the film but that I won’t ruin for you here in case you’ve managed to avoid it so far). Suffice it to say, he wants to get away from his island quickly and there’s a special somebody he wants to take with him.

That ‘somebody’ is the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). He’s been obsessed with her since she saved him from snakebite when he was 10 years old. Things haven’t gone so smoothly for them, and he needs the help of the two boys to get her back and to get away.

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I thoroughly enjoyed the story. At its heart, it’s a coming-of-age tale focused more around Ellis than it’s title character. Mud’s problems become those of Ellis. He assumes Mud’s love-life woes as his own, desperate to re-unite him and Juniper. At the same time, Ellis has fallen for a girl and things seem to be going well, but this is a 14-year-old boy; do you think things are going to run smoothly for him in this regard? (Answer, no). He believes in love though. It is, at times, incredibly simple and idealistic, but it’s all the better for it.

If the story is good, and it really is, then it’s the characterisation and the performances of the cast that really ground this story and give it heart. Here, McConaughey has continued his recent run of picking his roles well. Mud suits him down to the ground. He carries at all times an air of intrigue. Whilst he is spinning various interesting tales aimed both at telling his story and educating his new young friends in the ways of life, those that know him are convincing us he’s a liar and not the loved up nice guy he’d have us believe he is. It is to McConaughey’s credit that we never truly find out what kind of man Mud is until the end. His performance is stripped back and he gives his anecdotes in a Southern drawl that instantly transports you to Arkansas with him. I’d say Mud is the most intriguing character I’ve seen portrayed on screen this year.

As I suggested earlier though, the film doesn’t belong solely to McConaughey. Tye Sheridan produces a wonderfully assured and mature performance as Ellis. Ellis meets Mud at a difficult time in his own life. His parents are breaking up, he’s falling for a girl and, y’know, he’s 14 – he’s in his formative years. Sheridan fills Ellis with so much heart and love that by the time his inevitable meltdown arrives, it’s gut wrenching. This film is wonderful exposure for the young man and if he can continue to get roles as good as this one, then there we are possibly watching a real star of the future. I’ll look forward to seeing how his career progresses – this is true stand-out stuff. His chemistry with McConaughey is magnificent, so much so that it’s not impossible to imagine them being cast together again in future films.

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There are also fine supporting roles from Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon and Ray McKinnon. Nobody here puts a foot wrong.

Credit must go to Nichols for his direction here too. The setting is often dark and moody – plenty of the film takes place at night with the sound of the waves lapping at Mud’s island. His characters, even the minor ones, are given a sense of depth and realism that is to be applauded. There’s much more camera movement here than we saw in Take Shelter and it works well for this movie. There are some beautiful shots of the scenery, using fantastic framing to convey the environment.

There is also intelligence and elegance in the way the environment reflects the characters’ general moods and emotions. Mud, for example, is a man isolated in more ways than one. He is quite literally alone on his island, but one senses a deeper loneliness that he is not keen to admit to anybody. The use of the literal and figurative plays well. Also adding to the minimalistic feel is the sparse use of music. It’s rarely in play, but when we are treated to any music at all it works well and enhances the film.

Overall, Mud is a fine movie and a continuation of some great early work from Jeff Nichols. Filled with heart-warming and heart-breaking scenes, it’s a coming-of-age tale bursting with real emotions and a very human story. Nichols has a talent for creating characters perfect for his cast, giving them a depth that makes them feel real. It is those characters that flesh out this story to make it a thoroughly engaging and engrossing film.

9/10

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One Response to “Mud”

  1. CMrok93 May 15, 2013 at 14:35 #

    Shows what happen when you have a cast that’s willing to act, and work wonders with it. Good review.

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