Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mud: A Good Man is Hard to Hide

Pretty much everyone I've ever mentioned Matthew McConaughey's name to responds that they're not a fan of his.  I have to confess that I've felt the same way.  But I liked him a lot in Magic Mike (see my piece on that here), and he's even more perfectly cast in Jeff Nichols' third feature, Mud, in which the actor is outstanding.  The plot is like a Flannery O'Connor version of Stand By Me crossed with a reverse Fitzcarraldo (by which I mean a boat has to be hauled down from a high place).  The cast includes Reese Witherspoon (in a smaller part than you would imagine), Sam Shepard (in a juicy little role), and Nichols regular Michael Shannon.  Nichols said that he told the stars, McConaughey and Witherspoon, that their characters would have to bleed outside the scenes that they possessed.  And they do, they do.  Through the eyes of the astonishing character of Ellis.

Ellis is the shining star of this coming-of-age film; he's full of yearning and a true believer in love.  He's played by Tye Sheridan, who was in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.  At only age 14, he already has a smoldering intensity.  (His father is played by Ray McKinnon, who is the creator of the terrific Sundance series "Rectify.") According to Nichols, who spoke after a screening of the film at LACMA, the film is about love--and I would add also about obsession and delusion.  And redemption.  

The movie has a gradual build, as Nichols himself (below) admits,  because he lets his characters dictate the plotting.  He said he wanted the film to be "slow, fluid, elegant."  "All of it was supposed to move like a river"--which is its setting.  And it does, gracefully, although I have to admit that I had to fight nodding off a few times in the first act--it was a school night, after all.  But that slow build ultimately flows to a surprising and satisfying action sequence with a beautiful payoff.  (Spoilers ahead!)

"Mud" is McConaughey's character's name, inspired by the Mississippi mud that the film crew was mired in. McConaughey's Mud exemplifies John Irving's Iowa Bob character in The Hotel New Hampshire, who was known for saying, "You've got to get obsessed and stay obsessed."  Mud's obsession is Juniper (Witherspoon), for the love of whom he's spent most of his life getting into trouble.  But now he's killed a man on her account, and he's got to lie low.  And so he's camping out in an abandoned boat stuck at the top of a tree.  Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) encounter and befriend Mud when they attempt to make the boat their own secret hangout.  

I haven't seen Nichol's first film, Shotgun Stories, but I did see Take Shelter, which I liked a lot.  Nichols describes the latter as a film about love and commitment.  It certainly is about Jessica Chastain's character's commitment to her husband (Michael Shannon), who appears to be descending into paranoid schizophrenia.

Writer-director Nichols is a 34-year-old Arkansas native (where Mud is set and was filmed), and he presents as a smart, gentle, literate soul.  He mentioned Mark Twain, Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, and Townes Van Zandt (Nichols had worked on a documentary about him) during the Q & A with Elvis Mitchell.  Mud has a very literary quality to it.  It's both mythic and realistic, humorous and heartbreaking.  Its time is indistinct--it feels like a period piece. The riverboat homes of Tye, Shepard, and Shannon are like nothing you've ever seen on film.  And that's Nichols' point--they are not long for this world.  But some things, like love, are enduring, even when they break our hearts.  Even when they ruin us.  And there is always someone else to capture our imagination in that wide expanse of open water and horizon that Mud awakens to at the end.  And among the new girls whom Ellis passes, having had his own heart broken.  Love is, to repurpose a line from Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning," "like wide water, without sound."

Here's the trailer for Mud:

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  1. OK, a few late night riffs. "Mud" reminded me of Huck Finn, in which Huck meets the escaped slave Jim on an island in the Mississippi. It also reminded me of "The Great Gatsby" in which Jay pines for Daisy across a body of water that proves impassable, what with boats getting pushed back by the current. And it reminded me of "Great Expectations" in which Pip meets and helps a violent fugitive in a watery wasteland. I love these three books, and I loved this movie, as well.

  2. Yes, many have commented on the Huck Finn parallel. Also, I was struck by how much Ray McKinnon looked like a young Sam Shepard.