Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Mud (2013) – Review

Review: Mud is an engrossing coming-of-age story and strong character drama. The film is about Ellis and Neckbone, two teenage friends who go out to a remote island along the Mississippi River to claim an abandoned boat as their own. However, when they find the boat, there is a drifter named Mud living in it. Mud tells them that he is waiting for his truelove Juniper, but hiding from the law after killing a man who hurt her. Taken by his plight, the boys decide to help Mud reconnect with Junipter.

With Mud, writer-director Jeff Nichols seems very interested in exploring the concept of love. At home, Ellis sees his parents’ relationship coming to an end and he does not understand how that can be when they loved each other (at some point in time). To him, love is a powerful agent – the storybook definition in which it conquers all. The deterioration of his home life shakes his confidence in love, which directly plays into why he is stalwart in his desire to help Mud despite all the warning signs (like the fact he is a murderer). He hears Mud’s story about being with his truelove Juniper and it restores the myth for him – a myth that he seems very set on protecting. He is very naïve. Ellis also engages in a relationship with a girl a few years older than him (a high school girl when he is probably in the eighth grade). He thinks that it is as easy as being nice to her and protecting her (because that is what he got from Mud’s story), and in the moment she is taken with him. She likes the attention, but for her there is nothing real between them. For Ellis, though, he is committed and thinks they are in love. He is destined to be hurt and jaded by the rejection (making him even more invested in seeing Mud and Juniper reunited and living happily ever after).

Nichols also explores this theme with the supporting characters that surround Ellis. He sees an upset woman fleeing Neckbone’s uncle’s house yelling that a woman should be treated like a princess. He also hears the story of his reclusive neighbor, a marine sharpshooter who was deeply in love with a woman but she died in childbirth (as did the child). He never loved again. Nichols uses all these stories to create a specific psyche for Ellis – one that allows him to see Mud and Juniper as storybook characters destined to be together, their love being pure with only evil forces keeping them apart. In this mind state, Ellis feels like it is duty to help them be together.

Ultimately, and obviously, Ellis going to be let down and hurt by the people he believes in, because it is all fantasy. In this way, Nichols is also telling a coming-of-age story. Ellis needs to be hurt in order for him to grow up. His friend Neckbone is clearly more skeptical and yet still goes along because he believes and looks up to his friend. He does not have the heart to outright tell Ellis what a fool he is being, rather he backs him up and supports him like a friend should. Mud is also equally naïve, but not due to being inexperienced like Ellis. His naivety stems much more from a place of self-deception. Like Ellis, Mud needs to be hurt to finally come to terms with himself, grow up, and move on.

Nichols starts to transform his main theme of storybook love into friendship. The film almost only shows broken relationships, but the friendships between Ellis and Neckbone and the boys and Mud are both very powerful. While it is unrequited love that helps them grow up, it is friendship that builds them back up and gives them the strength to move on. Nichols handles the material very deftly. It is touching without a hint of cheesiness.

In addition to Nichols’s superb command of the film’s narrative themes, he also develops the characters fantastically and efficiently. The film has a lot of supporting characters, all of whom are important to the plot and the main characters’ dramatic journeys. Thus, Nichols must give them all enough character moments for the audience to build connections to them. He does this magnificently. The story is told very economically, each scene playing an important role in the overall film as the drama builds. Nichols also paces the film well, which is an important and difficult job when a film is character driven. The audience must stay engaged.

While the film works very well overall (and is the best drama I have seen so far this year), the plot does take the drama into an exaggerated place in the third act. Since Nichols manages the audience’s connection with the characters so well, this is not really an issue and the audience is fully invested and willing to go anywhere with these characters. But that said, the third act does feel a little cliché in its drama being ratcheted up. The character drama seems to suddenly change into a thriller somewhat losing sight of the characters. The epilogue also feels very Hollywood (a bit like a test audience demanded a happy unambiguous resolution to the drama, so one was added – but by the same token, who does not like a happy ending).

Despite some nitpicking issues that really do not hurt the film much, Mud is a wonderful character drama, ripe with great characters and strong direction.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Jeff Nichols has made three films now. Each telling stories about families trying to make it faced with hard and changing times. His films feel very personal. He cares about his characters, which comes across in his narratives and draws the audience in. Nichols is a fine talent coming out of America’s independent cinema. He is a filmmaker to watch. I recommend all is films (his first two are Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter), and looks forward to his next.

Composer David Wingo’s score does a good job reinforcing the dramatic tone. It is at times ominous while in other moments it feels more enchanting, mirroring the drama and themes that Nichols employs in the film. Adam Stone’s photography is wonderful as well. He, along with production designer Richard Wright, gives the film a very realistic look, yet with some foreboding as well (for example: the early shot of the camera floating over the murky, foggy river – which certainly seems to signify that some dark and dangerous is on the horizon). Wright’s design, however, fully immerses the viewer in the realities of the hard lives the characters lead, leaving the fantasy aspects to the cinematography and score.

 The performances in the film are top-notch across the cast. Paul Sparks (is very menacing, which is sort of strange, as I am only familiar with him as his sniveling character on Boardwalk Empire), Michael Shannon, and Sam Shepard are all very good in small supporting roles. Despite their lack of screen time, they each add something dramatically important to the narrative. Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson also have small roles (in terms of screen time) as Ellis’s parents, but their dramatic moments are key to the whole narrative working, as their relationship shapes Ellis’s character and his motivations. They are both very good as well. Reese Witherspoon is a great choice to play Juniper. It is easy to both imagine her as the innocent pinnacle of Mud’s affection who loves him too and as a girl who is just using him. In different moments, she makes the audience believe each is true. Jacob Lofland, playing Neckbone, is fantastic. He is very resourceful and tough, and yet very vulnerable. Tye Sheridan, playing Ellis, steals the film (even though most will look to Matthew McConaughey’s performance, as he is the main name actor in the film). He has a true heart and is maybe the only real hero (in the classic sense) left in his weary world. McConaughey is also excellent in the film as Mud. He is wildcard. At any moment he might harm his young companions, but he is so captivating as well. He just draws the audience in, making them forget that he is dangerous and probably will hurt these kids in the end.

Summary & score: Mud is built on terrific characters and wholly engaging drama. It pulls the viewer in and never lets them go until the last frame. 8/10

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