(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
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