MUD Review: The Power of Love
While some may have had a quiet, relaxing Mother’s Day weekend, ours had a jam-packed schedule that included everything from room-decluttering (fun, right?) to a family outing to the gym. (I opted for an hour on the recumbent bike because you get to sit down the whole time and if my legs turned to jelly, I could still type.) Also on the agenda for the weekend was, naturally, a movie. It was my wife’s pick and by Saturday night, she had narrowed it down to Baz Luhrmann‘s much-anticipated The Great Gatsby (on opening weekend, no less), or the lesser-known, lesser-publicized film from writer/director Jeff Nichols, Mud. She chose the latter.
I don’t know what drove her decision – maybe the Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes, maybe the fact that the limited release was playing at only one theater close by (still 30+ miles form home) and would be gone long before the Gatsby popcorn got stale, or maybe because of the possibility that star Matthew McConaughey would surely take his shirt off at some point in the film (he does).
Honestly, I don’t care why. My wife made a GREAT choice. Mud is one of the best movies of 2013, and I couldn’t help but notice that a film we saw on Mother’s Day was all about fathers, sons, father figures, male archetypes, and the expectations of love.
There’s a boat in a tree and two teenage boys plan to claim it as their own. So begins Mud, a film about Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two best friends who live a bluer-than-blue collar life on an Arkansas river. When not in school, Ellis helps his father (Ray McKinnon) sell fish door-to-door from a cooler in the bed of his truck, while Neckbone helps his Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) dive for oysters in a homemade diving suit. When they aren’t helping the patriarchs in their lives, they’re out in the water on Ellis’ small outboard, and their latest adventure takes them to a small island where, rumor has it, there is a boat in a tree.
And indeed there is. The boat had found a home high in a tree as a result of a flood, and the boys – as teenage boys are wont to do – plan to make it the coolest treehouse ever. But the boat they thought had been long abandoned is actually a makeshift home for Mud (McConaughey), a fugitive from justice who wants nothing more than to reunite with his longtime love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud enlists the boys’ help to communicate with Juniper and secure the materials necessary to get the boat out of the tree and into sailing shape. But a man from Mud’s past (Joe Don Baker) has other plans.
Mud is one of those movies that you expect to be one thing or suspect might be another, but it turns into something else entirely. First, it has some hot southern thriller aspects to it, with McConaughey practically typecast as the devilish (and devilishly handsome) fugitive on the run, with a pretty blond waiting in the wings, cops on his heels, a man chasing after him and fixed on revenge, and a couple of kids who will surely find themselves in peril. It also has elements of a villain-with-a-heart-of-gold tale, all but ready for one last hug from the kid who wants him to become a surrogate dad, all before the cops throw him in the back of the car and drive away into the sunset. It’s neither of those, and be thankful.
Instead, the film deftly addresses the issue of love and relationships in a world dominated by men. Ellis’ father is more boss than dad, preparing his son for the rough road of life while simultaneously facing a divorce from Ellis’ mother (Sarah Paulson). Galen is a father-by-proxy (and totally unqualified) to his nephew Neckbone. Mysterious figure Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) is a father figure (at least) to Mud, and there when the fugitive needs him most. Baker, as King, is fueled by the memory of his own son as he pursues Mud. Even the relationship between Ellis and Neckbone has the latter somewhat looking up to the former. And then, of course, there is the relationship between Mud and Ellis.
No sooner does the kid meet the fugitive, a bond is formed. Maybe some of that has to do with Ellis’ monotonous life and his struggling relationship with his father (particularly in the wake of his parents’ announcement that a divorce is forthcoming); maybe some of that has to do with the adventurousness of youth; and maybe some of that has to do with Mud’s yearning to reunite with Juniper (it’s never said out loud, but surely a man who has been in love with a woman for as long as Mud has been in love with Juniper has to wonder if he will ever be with his girl and someday start a family); Ellis, especially when he assumes the role of go-between for Mud and Juniper, seems to assume the role of son to the father played by Mud.
Speaking of Juniper, it isn’t as if women are completely ignored in the film. There are three key female characters: Mud’s mother, Mary Lee; Juniper; and Ellis’ first girlfriend, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). Each of these three women has an effect on Ellis, and while his mother is the most important to him, and while May Pearl is the most impacting, it’s his relationship with Juniper that is most fascinating. As he hears Mud talk of his love for Juniper, Ellis becomes an extension of that love – almost the embodiment of that love itself – and that love powers Ellis’ singular focus to get Mud and Juniper back together. Even when Juniper finds herself in trouble, Ellis doesn’t hesitate to come to her rescue.
Sheridan, whose credits include The Tree of Life and nothing else, does a remarkable job as Ellis, projecting onscreen such subtlety of emotion; he never overplays a scene nor does he confuse brooding for boring. Other solid performances abound, including Witherspoon who, while not in a lot of the film, shows the acting form that garnered her critical praise for her portrayal of June Carter in Walk the Line (and let’s hope this is the first step towards bigger and better things); Baker, who, for all of his ’70s bombast, is an interesting casting choice that paid off, thanks to a smartly subdued performance; and, of course, McConaughey, who proves that his good looks aren’t what necessarily make him so appealing – it’s his charm. He looks unkempt throughout the film, but you don’t care because he makes you want to listen to him, not just look at him. It’s a highlight reel performance.
Mud is a film delicate in balance, rich in character, and wonderfully satisfying in plot, theme, and execution. It always knows what it is, it never tries to be more, and even when it looks like it might go in a direction you hope it doesn’t, it knows when to stop and NOT go in that direction. I can’t wait to see it again.