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For Your Consideration: 'Mud'

The Mississippi River is central to many American legends, like the Rhine in the mythology of Richard Wagner. Mud, the most recent feature by Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter), nestles comfortably in that legendary locale, a latter-day adventure of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Two teenage boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan, last seen in Terence Malick's The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland), set off on the river in search of a boat that was left marooned in a tree by a recent flood. A boat represents freedom in the world the boys inhabit along the river, a culture of dilapidated house boats, subsistence by fishing and oystering, and life at the edge of legality, which is vanishing before their eyes. Nichols, who is from Arkansas and has trained his camera on his home state, joins directors like Alexander Payne and Debra Granik, who are documenting the fascinating inner life of the flyover states.

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Mud (directed by Jeff Nichols)
The boys are surprised to discover that the boat has already been claimed, by a man also marooned on the island, whom they come to know only as Mud. Matthew McConaughey tries to submerge his star power image in the character's griminess -- ratted and bleached hair, leathery suntan, and general unwashedness -- and comes up with a cunning performance. His Mud is an inveterate talker of the southern variety, but his devotion to a beautiful woman, for whom he is waiting at his own risk, inspires Ellis, who has just discovered the thrill -- and soon enough the pain -- of love. McConaughey captures the character's popular touch -- the folk magic and superstition, the easy charisma, the ability to ask for a favor and make it seem like he is helping you. It is a portrait of the south -- a place where, like the boys in the film, you call your daddy 'sir' -- every bit as vivid as the visual and linguistic one evoked so beautifully by the film (cinematography by Adam Stone, screenplay by Nichols).

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The supporting cast rounds out a yarn-like story that chugs along in a captivating, slow-paced (very Southern) way, with Reese Witherspoon as Mud's trashy idol girlfriend, Sam Shepard as a river loner who becomes known to the boys only through their attempts to help Mud, Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulsen as Ellis's struggling parents, and Michael Shannon (the lead in both of Nichols's previous features, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter) as the uncle who "raises" Neckbone after his parents abandoned him. Possible nomination nods could conceivably include Best Actor for McConaughey and Best Original Screenplay for Nichols: the latter, if perhaps too tightly sewn up at the end (no spoilers here), is almost note-perfect in tone.

1 comment:

George said...

Great review, convinced me to give this film a shot!