Friday, July 5, 2013

Movie Review: "Mud"

Arkansas teenagers Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his smartass best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are dealing with the struggles of growing up in a depressed rural area—Ellis' parents are talking about separating, which means his family may lose their house on the river and be forced to move into town, while Neckbone is raised by his philandering but well-meaning uncle, Galen (Man of Steel's Michael Shannon, finally playing a reasonably well-adjusted person). Otherwise, they're typical teenagers, obsessed with girls and thirsting for adventure.

Hearing about a boat that had gotten stuck high in some trees on a nearby island, the boys venture out to see if the rumor is true. And upon finding the boat, they make an even more fascinating discovery—Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a grizzled hobo who has made the boat his home. Mud has taken to hiding on the island until he's able to meet his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who has promised to meet him. But there's more to Mud than meets the eye—it turns out he's on the run from the law and a band of rogue killers bent on hunting Mud down for killing Juniper's abusive husband.

As his life is in tumult around him, Ellis is determined to believe that love can conquer all, even though he sees many examples to the contrary. So he and Neckbone agree to help Mud plan his escape as well as his reunion with Juniper. Along the way they enlist the reluctant help of Mud's surrogate father, Tom (a weathered Sam Shepard), and Ellis uncovers more truth—about Mud and the other people in his life—than he expected. And as those hunting Mud down begin closing in, and the boys' actions are being watched, their quest to help their friend becomes more dangerous than noble.

This is a quiet movie with almost an elegiac feel to it. You get a chance to know and care about the characters, so I found myself watching the movie with a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach, because I knew something bad would happen. It's a somewhat familiar story, yet writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) doesn't completely hew to everything you expect. And although this movie takes place in rural Arkansas, Nichols cares about his characters and doesn't resort to stereotypes you often see in movies about this region.

In recent years, Matthew McConaughey has been stepping up his acting from the shirtless, cocky, underachieving ladies' man roles that have catapulted him to fame. Last year, he won several film critics' awards for his roles in Magic Mike, Bernie and Killer Joe, and he was definitely in the mix for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. While he does appear shirtless briefly in Mud, it's McConaughey's acting that dazzles more than his still-impressive torso. His performance is quirky yet strong, and you can credit both the actor and the writer when you find yourself rooting for someone who did wrong.

The other actors have smaller roles, but do well with them. Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story) and Ray McKinnon (Sons of Anarchy) are strong as Ellis' struggling parents, Michael Shannon has some quiet moments, and Jacob Lofland provides some comic relief as the less-trusting Neckbone. Witherspoon looks tiredly luminous, although she doesn't have a particularly large role. But the movie belongs to relative film newcomer Tye Sheridan, who brings a quietly fierce sensitivity to the movie, acting as its anchor and its heart. I hope Sheridan's career takes off, because I'd love to see how his talent develops.

Some critics have likened this to a modern-day Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. While there's certainly elements of those in Mud, it's a movie that stands on its own, a story of friendship, love, loyalty, and faith that the right things will happen.

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