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

I Declare War


War is Hell.

War is Hell.

(2012) Action (Drafthouse) Siam Yu, Gage Monroe, Michael Friend, Aidan Gouveia, Mackenzie Munro, Alex Cardillo, Dyson Fyke, Spencer Howes, Andy Reid, Kolton Stewart, Richard Nguyen, Eric Hanson, Alex Wall. Directed by Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson  

 Florida Film Festival 2013

War is ingrained in our personality. So many of the games we play are little more than wars without weapons. Capture the Flag, Football, Chess – all utilize strategy and tactics and require a killer instinct to be successful. War is literally bred into us as children.

Among one group of Canadian kids, the ultimate general is PK (Monroe). In a kind of elaborate game of Capture the Flag, he’s never failed to win. In the game PK has set up, there is a rigid set of rules – players “shot” by other players must stay down for a ten count. If they are hit by a “grenade” (a water balloon filled with red paint) they are “dead” and must go home immediately.

Quinn (Gouveia) leads the opposition and PK knows that Quinn is a formidable opponent. In Quinn’s corner is Jess (Munro), the only girl in the game and one who has a superior grasp of strategy and tactics. While most of the players (Quinn included to a certain extent) don’t take her seriously because she’s a girl, she overlooks it mainly because she has a huge crush on Quinn (kind of proving their point). But Quinn’s reign as generalissimo is to be short-lived.

When PK’s best friend Kwon (Yu) is taken prisoner (which isn’t forbidden by the rules but has never been done before apparently) by Skinner (Friend), Quinn sees this as a direct threat to his authority and orders that Kwon be executed. Instead, Skinner takes out Quinn and takes over the team. Jess as well as the other players Sikorski (Fyke) and Frost (Cardillo) somewhat grudgingly go along with Skinner’s play, which is to use Kwon as bait to lure PK out. Most of the others think PK is far too smart to fall for it.

It soon becomes clear that Skinner has an agenda of his own and he’s not above using physical torture on Kwon to get what he wants. PK’s team of Joker (Howes) and Wesley (Reid) is all for storming the enemy camp but PK has an ace in the hole – taciturn Caleb (Stewart) who lurks with his dog in the underbrush, observing and biding his time. But when things come to a head,  it will become less clear who is the hero and who the villain is.

When I saw that there’s nary an adult in the cast, I thought this was going to be one of those insufferable kid flicks in which kids are wiser and more clever than adults and save the day. It’s nothing like that. These are kids who while they do take on some adult characteristics (I think it’s safe to say that few kids think as tactically as the kids in this film do – and to find them all in the same neighborhood really takes a lot of faith to accept) are still essentially kids. They’re very imaginative but they are also deeply vulnerable and insecure.

One of the conceits of the film that I loved is that when the kids are engaged in battle, they have realistic looking weapons in their hands. When they are not, their weapons are sticks and rocks and water balloons. When they deploy the balloons, they turn into grenades. It’s very clever although it did take me a few minutes to pick up on it.

With an all-kid cast you take your chances and the filmmakers have a few kids here who more than hold their own. There are others who simply aren’t as successful as they could be and whether it’s a lack of motivation on the part of the directors or if the kids just didn’t “feel” their roles is hard to say. I don’t like speaking negatively of juvenile performances because at least in the case of adult actors they have the tools to handle criticism whereas kids rarely do but it is also part of my responsibility to tell my readers what to expect if they see this film and frankly, that might be a turning point for some.

I hope not though – because this is really a terrific movie when I honestly didn’t expect that it was going to be. This is an allegory on the savagery of war on one level, and what it does to people who fight and lead in it. On another, it is about the imagination of kids and how the boundaries of reality and play can sometimes be blurred. This really is an intelligent film on a lot of levels and despite the all-kid cast, I’m not sure every kid is ready to see this – there’s a lot of stuff that the kids in this movie do that I’m sure most parents would have a heart attack if they knew their middle school kids were doing too. However, I think the more mature older kids might get something out of it – I know most adults will.

REASONS TO GO: An allegory on the savagery of war but also a parable on the imagination of kids.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting leaves something to be desired. A lot of standing around and dithering.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some violence and torture as well as a bit of bad language, all perpetrated by and on children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Caleb’s dog is a Canadian Husky.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; played Fantastic Fest last year and a handful of film festivals this year; picked up by Drafthouse Films but unsure what their plans are with it at the moment, whether it will get a limited theatrical release or end up directly on home video.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of the Flies

FINAL RATING: 8/10

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