Mud


Matthew McConaughey explains to his protégés that the secret to getting chicks is taking off your shirt.

Matthew McConaughey explains to his protégés that the secret to getting chicks is taking off your shirt.

(2012) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Joe Don Baker, Paul Sparks, Johnny Cheek, Bonnie Sturdivant, Stuart Greer, Clayton Carson, Michael Abbott Jr., Kristy Barrington. Directed by Jeff Nichols

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Love is not everything it’s cracked up to be. Sure it’s beautiful – it can raise us up to be better people than we ever thought we could be, inspire us to do amazing things. It can also turn on us in a heartbeat, savage us without warning, stab us in the back and leave us to bleed to death on the cold, hard ground.

Ellis (Sheridan) is a 14-year-old boy living on the Mississippi river in Arkansas. He and his good friend Neckbone (Lofland) have river water flowing through their veins; they are most comfortable on the river or it’s many tributaries and they know their way around an outboard motor. Neckbone has never really known his parents; he lives with his genial Uncle Galen (Shannon) who makes a living harvesting oysters from the riverbed and likes to have sex to the immortal strains of “Help Me, Rhonda” by the Beach Boys.

Ellis’ parents Senior (McKinnon) and Mary Lee (Paulson) fight more than they talk; Ellis takes most after the laconic, drawling Senior while Mary Lee – whose houseboat they live on – is tired of the life and wants to move into town. Ellis is torn up about this but takes solace in pretty 17-year-old May Pearl (Sturdivant) whom he is more than sweet on and who, against all odds, seems to return his affections.

While exploring an island on the river, Neckbone and Ellis find a boat that had been incongruously washed up into a tree during a bad storm. Even more incongruously, they find a man living in the boat. He introduces himself as Mud (McConaughey), and has driven nails into the soles of his shoes in the shape of a cross to ward off evil. Mud is a big believer in luck.

He is waiting on a girl, he tells them – the lovely Juniper (Witherspoon) who is graceful and beautiful and has tattoos of nightingales on her wrists. But Mud is no saint – he killed a man in Texas who abused the lovely Juniper and now is hiding out from the law and from bounty hunters sent by the deceased’s rich and relentless father (Baker). Mud is in a bit of a spot and needs some help. Ellis, generally suspicious of such things, is moved by his chivalry and charm and agrees to help.

That sets into motion a chain of events that none in the drama can possibly foresee. Ellis will learn that love doesn’t cure everything and that sometimes, that good isn’t always good enough. He will grow up much faster because he has to, but what will he truly become?

Director Jeff Nichols, who has helmed such films as Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, is rapidly turning into a really terrific filmmaker who captures the modern South – particularly the rural aspects of it – better than anyone. Sort of a modern day Tennessee Williams without the melodrama, Nichols makes a movie about decent but flawed folk who may not be well-educated but aren’t dumb.

Matthew McConaughey has taken his share of critical lumps but in the past couple of years has really been on a hot streak. I haven’t seen Killer Joe yet and I’m assured his performance there is every bit as good as this one, but for my money this is his best performance on film yet. It utilizes his natural charm but McConaughey knows how to play the flaws well – Mud is a bit of a bovine poo artist, and he is rather impulsive. Mud however is basically decent at heart and Ellis recognizes it. Mud’s hopelessly in love with Juniper who he has idealized quite a bit; it becomes evident early on that she’s simply not worthy of him.

Sam Shepard’s character Tom Blankenship recognizes that. Blankenship is a father-figure to Mud and Shepard gives him the rootsy, folksy feeling that Shepard is well-known for. Blankenship has some skeletons in his closet which play into the film’s climax, but more on that in a bit. I’ve always loved Shepard as an actor since I first saw him in The Right Stuff and he’s still just as good now.

Sheridan is a big find. He gives Ellis a really good heart although he is sorely pressed by his world coming apart around him with Ellis unable to do a single thing to stop it. He becomes invested in Mud’s world and when that world implodes it becomes more than he can bear. Ellis is given some fairly emotional scenes to play and Sheridan plays them honestly. It’s a rare trait among juvenile actors.

Witherspoon’s recent personal and legal problems unfortunately surfaced just as the movie was hitting theaters which is a shame as her performance has tended to be overlooked in lieu of the more gossipy aspect of her life. I’m not sure why we feel the need to follow the mistakes and errors of celebrities – I get the feeling that she just had a bad night and given the opportunity to relive it would likely do things differently. I’ve done things that I regret – it’s just that I get to suffer the consequences of those actions privately.

This is the kind of movie that has a powerful emotional effect on you and when you leave the theater you know immediately that you’ve seen something profound. While I wasn’t a big fan of the film’s ending – it seemed a little Hollywood rote to me – still there was plenty of catharsis to go around.

The South has always had its share of literary giants – besides Williams there was William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty – but we are beginning to see some very strong directors coming out of the South and Nichols is one of the vanguard of a new Southern cinema that I believe is going to make its presence felt over the next couple of decades and beyond. Mud is a movie about the South but it is a movie that will resonate with anyone, even those who don’t live a rural existence. Mud is about love and life. We’re all said to be created from the clay and what is that besides dried mud?

REASONS TO GO: Really well-acted. Captures rural Arkansas to a “T.” Literate. Ellis is one of the best juvenile characters in years.

REASONS TO STAY: Ending could have used some work.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, some sexual references, a bit of smoking, a fair amount of foul language and some adult thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chris Pine was originally considered for the title role but couldn’t work it in to his busy schedule.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100; the movie is doing well from a critical standpoint.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eye of the Hurricane

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: The Brass Teapot

White Material


White Material

Isabelle Huppert realizes she isn’t in Provence anymore.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankole, William Nadylam, Adele Ado, Ali Barkai, Daniel Tchangang, Michel Subor, Jean-Marie Ahanda, Martin Poulibe, Patrice Eya, Serge Mong. Directed by Claire Denis

 

Have you ever been in love with someone that didn’t love you back nearly as much? Maybe even disliked you or hated you? I think we’ve all been in situations like that, but then again what happens when that love is for a place?

Maria Vial (Huppert) runs a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country (although it was filmed in Cameroon). She doesn’t actually own it – her ex-father-in-law Henri (Subor) actually does, but he is infirm and although she is divorced from his son Andre (Lambert), Maria actually runs the place with Henri’s blessing. Maria and Andre are on pretty good terms, although their teenage son Manuel (Duvauchelle) drives them both a little crazy as teenagers will. He seems content to do nothing but sit in his room; Maria wants him to participate more in the running of the plantation while Andre just hopes he find some sort of direction in life.

Their idyllic lifestyle however is coming to an end. The country is being torn apart by civil war and rebels roam the countryside, many of them children, wishing to wipe every vestige of colonialism from their land. Maria’s workers are getting out while the getting is good and they urge her to do the same. So does Andre. So do French soldiers who approach via helicopter to tell her that they can’t protect her if she stays.

Maria, however, isn’t about to leave. She feels the same love for the land as any African, she reasons, and that makes this just as much her land as theirs. Determined to bring in the harvest that will save her struggling plantation, she goes into town to hire new workers, which she is partially successful in doing. However, she can’t help but notice the suspicion with which she is regarded.

Her son, in the meantime, has an experience that changes him forever and not for the better. Maria also discovers the Boxer (de Bankole), the leader of the rebellion, seriously wounded and puts him up on her land in an outbuilding so he can recover. This might end up protecting her – or getting her caught in the crossfire.

Denis has a history living in French Colonial Africa and obviously her experiences have resonated with her. She has a real feeling for the country and its people, but she sees them without rose-colored glasses. Both the colonials and the Africans in most of her films (several of which have to do with colonialism and its effects) are flawed both philosophically and as people, but she clearly has affection for all of them.

I love San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle’s assessment about Huppert – “anyone who has seen Huppert in other films may well expect her to be able to beat down the revolution by glaring at it.” Huppert is one of the most intense actresses living on the planet and manages to channel that intensity without being overt or over-the-top about it, a mistake young actresses often make. She is like a coiled spring who communicates her intensity with a glance, or a gesture.

Here she’s slightly more vulnerable than her screen personal usually is, although that fierceness is still there in her stubborn refusal to acknowledge the growing storm that approaches. However, there are several shots that Denis frames Ms. Huppert in that show her almost as schoolgirl-small, alone in a beautiful but hostile environment. In one scene, she needs to get on a bus but the bus is full. Undeterred, she hangs onto the ladder outside the bus; her muscles ripple with effort as she hangs on, much as she does with her plantation. It’s an extraordinary scene that will remain in your memory.

Lambert, best known for his appearances in the Highlander films (as well as occasional cameos in the TV series), displays some hitherto unsuspected tenderness as Andre. He’s not nearly the primal force that his wife is, but Andre is a good man nevertheless and at last when things hit the fan, he has to do the sensible thing. It’s not the wrenching moment it could have been but then, this isn’t Andre’s story either.

The cinematography here is brilliant. Yves Cape, the cinematographer, knows how to frame a shot properly but this isn’t just rote point the camera and take pretty pictures. Each shot is a story and embellishes the story, often giving hints as to what the story is about such as the shot of Maria hanging on the bus we discussed earlier. There are also a lot of interesting faces in the film. While Cape is good at what he does, one has to give at least partial credit to Denis, who has a very specific vision. The things I’ve just referred to are standard in her films.

The film bounces around in various time frames, from the denouement which is teased in the opening scene and to better times and to the beginning of the troubles and back again. This kind of storytelling requires a lot of discipline to keep from confusing the audience, but it didn’t quite work for me.

I’ll admit that I’m pretty impressed with the movie overall, although I downgraded it several points for the flashbacks/flash forwards. Huppert is one of the most brilliant actresses there is who hasn’t gotten sufficient due here in the States. I don’t think Americans are comfortable with a woman who displays this kind of intensity, if you ask me. White Material may not resonate with Americans quite so much as we don’t wrestle with the same colonial issues that Europeans do, at least not to the same extent (we have our own demons that are often on display in our movies). Still, this is one of those hidden gems that any serious film lover should go out of their way to seek out.

WHY RENT THIS: Huppert gives a riveting performance. Beautiful cinematography. Some very symbolic shots will have you working this one over in your head for weeks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The flashback storytelling method left me cold.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are pretty adult. There is also some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie that Denis filmed in Cameroon, the first being Chocolat.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Released on DVD as a Criterion Edition, there is an illustrated booklet, There is also a featurette on Denis’ return to Cameroon at the local film festival to screen the move for locals but also for those who worked on the film, many of whom who had never seen it which proved to be a daunting task as Cameroon has nary a single movie theater.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $304, 020 in the U.S. on an unreported production budget; the movie in all likelihood was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nowhere in Africa

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Prometheus