Monday, 10 June 2013
FILM REVIEW: MUD
"It's a hell of a thing, a boat in a tree." And so, too, is writer-director Jeff Nichols' third feature which, although no freak of nature, is indeed some kind of small miracle in the modern film milieu: a languidly told coming of age tale which champions love (familial, romantic, platonic), and characters over action.
Not that Mud is without action (albeit most of it in the overly busy third act). It is an eventful summer for 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) who, when he's not required to help his fisherman dad (Ray McKinnon), is boating up and down the Mississippi river with his best pal, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland); the two a regular modern day Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (Nichols' screenplay owing a debt of gratitude to Mark Twain).
It's whilst doing so, headed for an island where they've heard that a boat has indeed been lodged in a tree following a recent flood, that they happen upon the mysterious yet charming Mud (Matthew McConaughey, continuing his career purple patch). We soon learn that Mud is a convict on the run but neither boy seems all that daunted by the potential for danger; both agreeing to help Mud with food, repairs to the boat, and to get word of his whereabouts to his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, a solid supporting role playing low rent), whilst keeping it secret from both law enforcement and the men who would do him harm.
Neckbone, the more suspicious of the two boys, agrees mostly as he wants Mud's pistol as eventual payment. But Ellis, who views Mud through more of a romantic, heroic prism, needs now more than ever to believe in love: his parents (Sarah Paulson plays his mum) have announced they will be separating.
Not only that, they will be moving into town and the government will be demolishing the boathouse from which his father earns his livelihood, and the only home Ellis has ever known. (Much like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Nichols' film is concerned with a people and way of life that modern American bureaucracy has little time or regard for.)
The Devil is in the detail, as they say, and the beauty in Jeff Nichols' film is the attention he gives to his characters, allowing them to unfold and develop before our eyes and at an unhurried pace much like the life of the Mississippi river dwellers he depicts (including Sam Shepard as Ellis's reclusive cross-river neighbour and one-time acquaintance of Mud).
McConaughey's Mud is both villain and hero, and the actor plays him with his inherent Southern charm and an underlying hint of danger, keeping his cards close to his chest yet proving to be exactly what he appears to be. But the real stars of the film are the two boys.
This is Lofland's acting debut and he lends the no-fuss Neckbone (who is cared for by his oyster-farming uncle, played by Nichols regular, Michael Shannon) an unadorned naturalness. While Sheridan (previously seen as one of Brad Pitt's sons in 2011's Tree of Life) allows Ellis to grow before our very eyes as his are gradually opened to the harsh realities of the adult world by his parents, by Mud and Juniper, and by May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), the older high school girl who effortlessly wins and breaks the young man's heart.
Mud premiered at Cannes 2012. That we've had to wait some 12 months to see such a wonderful film is maddening but given that it has had its limited release in Australia extended somewhat (from one Melbourne cinema to a sole Sydney theatre) -- or that it is even releasing at all! -- it seems churlish to complain.
Like a boat in a tree on an river island, it's some kind of miracle we're getting Mud at all. I highly recommend you reciprocate the effort and see it. It's a hell of a thing.