Tuesday, May 21, 2013
"Mud" plays out like a modern day fable, in some ways. You have two boys, Ellis and Neckbone, making their way to a small island via motorboat where they discover a large boat stuck in a tree. That's where they come across Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a former native of the region who has just returned, hiding out on the island because he shot and killed a man, a man who threw Mud's old girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) down the stairs, causing her to lose the baby she was carrying. In the course of helping this potentially dangerous man, Ellis learns about the nature of love and trust, in all their pratfalls.
Every character in "Mud" deals with love in their own way. Neckbone, unaware of who his real parents are, only has Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) to look up to and Galen treats his women like objects. Ellis's parents are going through a painful divorce that will wind up forcing him to move out of the houseboat that he's spent his whole life in, forcing him to live in the town. He has a "girlfriend" named Maypearl who, after one date, doesn't give him the time of day. Ellis wants to help Mud because he believes Mud truly loves Juniper, an old girlfriend that's back in town, looking for him. But does Mud love her? Does Juniper love Mud? To Ellis, the issue is black and white, but of course we know there's more to it than that.
There's a point in all of our lives where we start to realize that what we know about our parents, what we know about love and marriage, goes beyond what we can comprehend. We assure ourselves, and others assure us, that it's because we're not old enough to understand, but the truth is it's beyond understanding. Mud is just as childish as Ellis is when it comes to love, killing a man to protect his "true love" without thinking through all of the consequences. No matter how old we get, we still have so much to learn about life. By the time we've got it all figured out, it's too late. Like Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepherd), an old man who lives in a houseboat by himself. Ellis wonders what Tom's story is. How did he get to be so lonely? Then we come to find out that Tom lost the love of his life, and it's left him heartbroken and alone.
We're all the product of our own environment and sometimes our environment can be so overbearing that we feel we owe to ourselves to get away from it all. While Ellis and Neckbone can't imagine being anywhere else, nearly all of the adults in "Mud" are looking to escape. Mud is trying to escape via the boat in the tree, Ellis's mother wants to escape her husband and leave the houseboat behind, Juniper is in a more complex situation. Part of her wants to escape with Mud, another part of her simply wants to escape... period.
"Mud" is a wonderful film because it has such a thematically rich story with actors that sink their teeth so well into these roles. The film reminded me of "Winter's Bone," which was another coming-of-tale set in an area where people have their own language, their own code, their own way of living. "Bone" is a bit more stark with a tough bitch of a main character, whereas "Mud" is a bit more hopeful. Things are bad, but they can get better. There's an element of danger in "Mud" that feels real, whenever Ellis goes out to give Juniper a letter, you're hoping that nobody is watching or following him. The dramatic points are downplayed so beautifully, the tension is created so naturally and gradually that it sneaks up on you. By the time we get to the climactic scene near the end, it's simply chilling.
Matthew McConaughey continues to impress with yet another strong performance. His character, Mud, is so many things at once. You don't know whether to feel bad for him, to be afraid of him, or to look down on him. Reese Witherspoon is also great as the torn lover, who tries hard to wait patiently for Mud, but just can't. And while Sam Shepard is as solid as usual, it's Tye Sheridan who has the most important role here. He was as compelling here as he was in "The Tree of Life," the 14 year-old Ellis is so layered and relatable, it's easy to get sucked in.
"Mud" wraps up a little too neatly for my taste and while I appreciate its thematically-rich story, I did think it was too on-the-nose in some places. Nevertheless, "Mud" is a wonderful Southern drama you won't want to miss.