Rolling on the River
Review of Mud (2013)
By Adam Tawfik
Making a film is a hard battle, but enticing the audience to see it is where the real struggle takes place. Several excellent films have been neglected or overlooked due to a poor marketing campaign, while countless terrible ones become box office bonanzas thanks to splashy promotion.
Misrepresenting one’s film, especially if it deviates in any way from the formulaic genre conventions, to make it “marketable” is hardly uncommon. Lionsgate’s publicity department employs a reverse tactic on the summer release, Mud, presenting it as a gritty thriller with specific emphasis on the grey color palate and a grimy, scraggly Matthew McConaughey.
Mud, as presented on-screen by the Arkansas born writer-director Jeff Nichols, is a heartwarming coming-of-age story, subtly told with total honesty and humor. Although the film is entitled Mud (to capitalize on McConaughey’s celebrity) the protagonist is Ellis (played by newcomer Tye Sheridan), a taciturn and intelligent 14-year-old who lives in a houseboat along the Arkansas river with his mother (a naturalistic and sympathetic Sarah Paulson) and fisherman father (Ray McKinnon) who are undergoing a turbulent divorce. Ellis’ livelihood is threatened when his mother, who owns the cabin, wants to relocate to the city.
One day when accompanying his best friend Neck-Bone (Jacob Lofland) to a deserted island to retrieve an abandoned boat they encounter “Mud,” (McConaughey) who’s wanted by an influential crime family after murdering one of their much beloved members. While the scrappier Neck-Bone has reservations about the mystery man, Ellis and Mud immediately bond. The two boys agree to bring him food and supplies and act as the go-between for him and his sexy but flakey girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), on whose account he committed the murder.
In Mud, Ellis finds a fatherly figure that his own father cannot be due to his alcoholism and bitterness about his dire prospects. The filmmakers and actors go beyond conceiving their relationship as simply a father-son dynamic. In the course of the narrative, Mud has the same idealism and romanticism about life as the adolescent Ellis, and must learn many of the same lessons about love, survival, and reality as his younger counterpart.
Like his previous effort Take Shelter (his debut Shotgun Stories also received good notices although I cannot vouch for it), Jeff Nichols creates an authentic portrait of the rural South, balancing the poverty -barren landscape with a Southern homespun humility in a way that isn’t sentimental or cloying, because the film approaches its subject and characters with understatement and genuineness.
Unlike many Southern story-based films in which the Yankee or British cast ham up the screen with their over-the-top mannerisms and made-up accents, Mud wisely rounds up an ensemble of Southern actors who for the most part bring an earthiness that’s convincing to being in the swamp.
Particularly good are the two teenagers, Sheridan and Lofland, who anchor the film. Sheridan conveys wisdom and sensitivity as well as a quiet but resilient physical and mental strength beyond his years, especially through his soulful eyes. He also embodies a ruggedness that makes doing things like punching strong 18-year-old boys believable.
Lofland infuses his lines with an acerbic wit and has the precocious charm that nicely offsets many of his crass remarks about such subjects as “titties,” which he says with considerable relish. Although the louder and brasher of the duo, Nichols and Lofland show how Neck-Bone is influenced and dependent on Ellis until the finale when he takes charge after Ellis has a weak moment.
The supporting cast is stellar, starting with McConaughey in the titular role. Retaining his roguish amiability from his inane popcorn flicks, McConaughey gives more nuance to the archetype with the aid of Nichols’ superior script and direction, adding humor, pathos, and a fetching mixture of cynicism and naiveté.
In his third collaboration with Nichols, Michael Shannon makes a humorous departure from his usual heavy dramatic roles as the well-meaning but irresponsible uncle who acts as Neck-Bone’s guardian. Sam Shephard is both humorous and touching as Mud’s frustrated, cantankerous, but protective surrogate father. Ray McKinnon convincingly presents a man angered and afraid by the ineveitble changes in his livelihood and family life. While self-pitying and snappy one moment, McKinnon’s Senior is also the moral backbone for Ellis.
Joe Don Baker, who plays the patriarch of the vigilante group after Mud, is always a welcome presence. Even though he portrays a ferocious character, Baker manages to elicit audience sympathy in his final scene without being untrue to the role.
Only the robotic Reese Witherspoon is insipid. Witherspoon lacks the allure, nuance, and surprisingly (for her) the sexiness to make her confused catalyst femme-fatale character credible. Although it’s a small part, her presence (or lack of) slightly dampers Mud’s third act. Although she isn’t Southern, Cameron Diaz’s combination of a shapely figure and a pretty blonde face plus the (underrated) dramatic chops would be better suited for Juniper.
While it doesn’t quite have the rawness and narrative innovativeness of Take Shelter, Mud is still a noble follow up and one of the better films this summer.