Mud screened at the Sundance Film Festival last nightwith Matthew McConaughey taking on promotional duties because unfortunately Reese was not in attendance. Reviews from the film are coming online, and below are the ones I’ve come across so far.
There is also an interesting interview with Matthew McConaughey up at HitFix, in which he talks a lot about the film.
‘Mud’ is a great story, but not a particularly great film.
Dripping in regional specificity and broad metaphor, Jeff Nichols’ new film feels more like a big, fat American novel you get assigned in 10th grade than the follow-up to ‘Take Shelter.’ That earlier film’s ominous tone and psychological portraiture is traded-in for large, gestural story beats that itch to be broken down and discussed for their symbolic meaning. When you are done explaining just what Boo Radley represented, then you can sink your teeth into Joe Don Baker’s character “King.”
There are worse crimes, though, than being grand, and ‘Mud”s coming of age tale certainly is that. Young Tye Sheridan plays Ellis, a good kid living “on the river” in Arkansas with an underachieving but caring father and a mother looking for change. He and his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover a boat stuck in a tree on an island, but they also discover a curious dude living there. It is Matthew McConaughey, charismatic as ever, but this time with a snake tattoo and a pistol stuck in the back of his jeans.
His name is Mud and we quickly learn that he is on the run from the law for gunning down a man who was abusing the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon.) Ellis, who romanticizes “pure love” beyond the point of reality, dedicates himself to helping Mud. Down this path lies some heartbreak, some danger and a whole bunch of life lessons.
At 130 minutes ‘Mud’ leisurely spends time with each of the extended players, including Ellis’ would-be girlfriend, the strange old neighbor (Sam Shepard) and Neckbone’s uncle played by Michael Shannon. With each visitation a little of Ellis’ innocence is lost, so much so that the 14 year old is almost ready to give up on human relationships. It is up to Mud, a murderer with a posse after him, to restore the kid’s faith in the world.
The characters and setting in the film are absolutely fantastic, but there are some aspects are simply too on-the-nose to let slide. I think I remember learning in my dramatic writing class that you can’t showcase a slimy pit of venomous snakes in the first act without them chomping on your lead character in the third. Also, if someone is evil, they have to wear a slick suit and a chain bracelet, even if they are in the middle of the deadest town in the least interesting part of the flyover, where a trip to the Golden Corral’s buffet is the highlight in fine dining.
‘Mud’ certainly looks nice. There are plenty of magic hour moments and McConaughey is shirtless a lot of the time. But there isn’t anything resembling pizzaz. The closest ‘Mud’ gets to being aesthetically playful is leaving you guessing at first if it takes place now or in the the late 1980s. The cars and clothing are all old, but one shot has a prominently placed calendar that makes its current setting clear. I wouldn’t look for too much meaning here – it’s quite possible that Arkansas river folk don’t use iPhones.
It’s hard to know how mainstream audiences will take to ‘Mud.’ Maybe it will tap into the Heartland audience that always feels overlooked by elitist Hollywood. Or maybe they’ll be bored by a film that leaves the crime story on the fringes and focuses mainly on a child’s growth. Either way, I’ll give ‘Mud’ a “recommend” if only for its remarkable feat of feeling like an adaptation of a classic novel that doesn’t actually exist.
Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon Stuck in ‘Mud’ in Lackluster Sundance Film
The funny thing about Sundance is that any person at any time could be a star. On the street you’re just waiting to peer under a pair of aviators or a fur-trimmed parka hood to see someone totally famous. Everyone is looking for the same thing in the movie theaters too. You go out to see the stars, like Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon in the new movie Mud, but the problem is, while the stars show up, the movie always doesn’t. Mud is a movie filled with great performances not only from the biggest names on the marquee, but also American Horror Story mainstay Sarah Paulson, Oscar nominee Michael Shannon and the two teenage newcomers Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. The problem is, they’re the best thing about the movie.
There are things to like about writer/director Jeff Nichols’ (Take Shelter) heartwarming coming-of-age story, but its problems outweigh its delights. It’s biggest problem is that the 130-minute running time is about 40 minutes too long. The second, and boy is it a doozy, that the movie is so close to verging on misogynist that the more feminist leaning parts of the Internet should rev up their keyboards now. There is not a woman in this movie who doesn’t betray her man, cheat on him, use him, steal his home, rob him of his authenticity, make him move to a boring condo complex in the suburbs, or otherwise force him of his natural and driving male essence.
The story is about two boys, Ellis and the wonderfully named Neckbone, two kids who live along a river in Arkansas and one day stumble upon a fugitive (McConaughey) living in a boat stranded on an island in the river. He is a sweet-talking charmer (does McConaughey play anything but) who is on the run from the law after killing the man who beat up the woman he loves (Witherspoon). He has nothing but a pistol and a magic shirt that he uses for protection (the irony of the oft-topless McConaughey having a magic shirt should be lost on no one) and he needs the boys to bring him food. Slowly they get embroiled in his plot to escape with his girl Juniper and avoid both the law and the dead man’s family that is hunting for him. This is all while Ellis’ father and mother are getting a divorce and he’s dealing with falling in love with his first girlfriend, who, of course, cheats on him and then humiliates him in public. This thing might as well be a river fort with a giant “No Girlz Allowed” sign out front.
The takeaway to the story seems to be that the only people you can count on in this world are your male friends and your father figure. At the end of the movie, after all hell breaks loose as Ellis and Neckbone’s entanglement with Mud gets crazy and deadly, we see each male character have a touching moment with his father figure. None of them are any good – Ellis’ father can’t make money, Mud’s adopted father is a deadly “assassin,” and Neck’s uncle treats women possibly the worst of any of them – but, heck, in a man’s world it’s the man who teaches you how to man like a man that man man man. And some of the man manning that men masculine you with is hatred of women. Ellis’ father (the wonderful Ray McKinnon) tells him at one point, “Women are tough. They set you up for some.” Eventually, when Ellis confronts Mud about how much girls suck, Mud replies, “If you find a girl half as good as you, you’ll be all set.” See, a woman can never be as good as a man. At least not a man who is loyal to other men. The movie ends with the Beach Boys song “Help Me, Rhonda,” which a character explains earlier is about a man who needs to get over a girl by having sex with another girl. Even as the credits are rolling this movie is telling us that women are fickle and replaceable, good only for sex, and not nearly as good as the men in life.
For all of its gorgeous cinematography and Southern charm, this is a well-told story. Film festivals need another movie about teenage boys coming of age and their complicated relationships with their father like a Big Mac needs more calories. And it’s not especially adept in its storytelling. There is a mention of snakes in the first 30 minutes followed by a complicated explanation that everyone in the theater sees is going to end in a snake bite and a redemption. The ending isn’t as saccharine and predictable as you might think, but it’s close. And of course that redemption in the end is only for those in the possession of at least one Y chromosome. Seriously, our stars deserve better than this.
Review: Mud (Sundance 2013)
PLOT: Two Arkansas boys, Ellis and Neckbone, stumble upon a mysterious stranger, who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and lives in a boat that happens to be shipwrecked in a tree. They agree to supply the charismatic stranger with food as he waits to be reunited with his estranged lover Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) even after they discover that he’s wanted for murder.
REVIEW: For me, director Jeff Nichols is another guy who’s three for three- with MUD being another winner along the lines of his earlier films SHOTGUN STORIES and TAKE SHELTER. Like the latter film, MUD is something of a fable, which probably finds equal inspiration in the early parts of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” and E.T- THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL- mixed with a big helping of southern Gothic and good ol’boy movies. The resulting concoction is, to me anyways, intoxicating.
MUD is also another piece of compelling evidence in Matthew McConaughey’s transition from go-to rom com guy to indie leading man, and his performance in the titular role is another gem. To play the charismatic, heroic Mud, Nichols really needed a guy like McConaughey, making the character a solid romantic hero- whose only crime is killing the man who almost killed his beloved Juniper. However, Nichols doesn’t seem to be interested in making Mud too Hollywood a creation, and it’s revealed over the course of the film that he’s more human and fallible than most other big-screen heroes, and that God forbid, the person he loves may not even be entirely deserving of his affection.
However, McConaughey is not really playing the lead, as the protagonist is without a doubt fourteen-year-old Ellis, played in a superb turn by Tye Sheridan. Despite his age, Ellis is a throwback to an earlier kind of boy- one more interested in the majesty of nature, and chivalry (him being quick to fisticuffs to protect a gal in danger) than anything else. In many ways, MUD is just as much of a elegy to a disappearing way of life as last year’s BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, with Ellis’ own days working and living on the river with his parents coming to an inevitable end and a move towards the city- which he dreads.
Running a lengthy, but briskly paced 130 minutes, MUD, is not only thematically rich, but also packs a whole lot of entertainment value into it’s running time. It’s romantic, it’s funny, and there’s even a bit of action towards the end- once Mud and his new-found friends are hunted by the mob-connected family of the man he killed (with their patriarch being prototypical good ol’ boy Joe Don Baker of WALKING TALL).
As usual for a Nichols movie, MUD is stunningly photographed, having been shot by Adam Stone, in a way that’s more stylized than TAKE SHELTER. The casting is also pitch-perfect, with Witherspoon having a meatier part than she’s had in years, even though she probably only has about fifteen minutes of screen-time. Nichols’ usual leading man, Michael Shannon has a welcome, extended cameo as Neckbone’s neer’do well, but kindly uncle- who works as a pearl diver when not seducing the local gals by playing “Help Me Rhonda” by The Beach Boys, or playing hilariously bad on his electric guitar. Meanwhile, Sam Shepard comes along and steals every scene he’s in as Mud’s pseudo father figure- who Mud claims is an ex-C.I.A assassin- and just may in fact be that.
All in all, MUD was a real treat and hopefully once it comes out (in the spring) it’ll find the wide-audience it deserves. Heck, even if you weren’t a fan of TAKE SHELTER (but why wouldn’t you be???)- you’ll probably enjoy MUD. It’s a joyful film, and thoroughly entertaining from start to finish.
Sundance 2013 – Mud Review
Matthew-McConaughey-in-mudWhen a film like Jeff Nichol’s Mud gets it’s premiere at Sundance, it immediately becomes the victim of quite a bit of unwarranted slander. For one thing, the film already has distribution with Lion’s Gate, and the fact that one of it’s leading roles is played by the likes of Matthew McConaughey, makes it an easy target of people who just want to simply dismiss the film on the grounds that it just isn’t quite “Indie” enough. It is my hope to help sweep aside some of these ridiculous notions.
The Sundance byline for Mud makes it seem like it’s just going to be a more high dollar version of last year’s runaway hit Beasts of the Southern Wild. Like Beasts, it takes place in the more rundown, indigent parts of the American South, and tells the story of two kids Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) whose youthful innocence causes them to view the complex and oft-times depressing happenings of the world around them, as just the first stops on a great adventure. Matthew McConaughey plays Mud, a disheveled redneck hermit who strikes up an unlikely friendship with the two children when they stumble upon his home, a boat stuck up in a giant tree. As the story unfolds, the children work to unravel the mystery of who Mud is, and just how in the world he ended up living on a tiny island in the middle of a river.
You really can’t talk about this film without first addressing the phenomenal acting that came from the likes of both child actors, in particular that of Tye Sheridan. Though his character in this film is only 14 years of age, he displays a sort of time hardened wisdom and clarity which far surpasses that of all of the adults in the film. Many child actor’s crumple under the burden of such a role, but Tye seems unequivocally at home. He’s got that same kind of uncharacteristic maturity that made all of Dakota Fanning’s early roles so damn unsettling and it made him the perfect fit for this role
Then there is the matter of McConaughey’s performance. For McConaughey, a film like Mud meant that he was going to have to work fairly diligently to break free from the typical associations that years of typecasting have forced his audiences to identify him with. Yes Mud has Matthew doing one or two of his contractual shirtless scenes, but at least the Jeff Nichols helped to ugly him up a bit. The thick layer of dirt on his clothes and body, paired with a good set of goofy dental work, help create a wonderful hokey hillbilly exterior, and because of this, the audience can more easily accept him in a role that in all likelihood was written for the likes of Woody Harrelson.
Though it is unlikely that Mud will live up to the expectations of those who were floored by Jeff Nichols’ last film Take Shelter, it is still a powerful film in it’s own right. At some point in every person’s life there comes a time when the world tries to strip them of the storybook ideals that are drilled into the heads of children, yet made to be forcibly disregarded as they become adults. This is what Mud is really about. To some it will be a movie about the uplifting power of true love. For others it will be about disenchantment with such things. Nichols allows the audience to derive their own personal meaning from his film, and because of this, it has quickly become my favorite film of the festival so far.
Mud opens in select markets in both France the US this coming April so keep your eyes peeled!
Jeff Nichols goes three-for-three with masterful, meaningful ‘Mud’
Director’s latest has a lot on its mind with magnetic performances throughout
Director Jeff Nichols has built upon each film he’s given us since his striking 2007 debut “Shotgun Stories.” 2011′s “Take Shelter” added deeper atmospheric considerations to an already adept handling of character relationships on screen in ways few artists this early in their careers seem to manage. “Mud,” screening tonight at the Sundance Film Festival, is a masterful combination of both stews that rings a storybook note owing as much to Gary Paulsen as to Mark Twain, and with more on its mind than perhaps anything the director has offered so far.
The project’s early film school seeds are a good reason for that thoughtfulness, springing from the mind of a young man stung by a failed relationship who set out to work through ideas of romance and the complexities of love so many years ago (stay tuned for an interview expanding on that later in the fest). But Nichols roots the enterprise in a world of Southern lore that speaks to an undercurrent of magical realism in his film; boats in trees, a unique community of river dwellers, it is a singular sense of place. And from the coming-of-age point of view of a young man, surely a surrogate for the director’s former self, that atmosphere finds ample thematic footholds.
Guy pegged the film as “familiar” when he saw it at Cannes, and that it is. I don’t like the pejorative, though, because this is less a film out to surprise than to marinate…
Hang on. You know what? I’m gonna step out of bounds for a moment and just say that I’m in love with this film, full stop. Digging and figuring out why and conveying that kind of doesn’t feel right. I’m not so much excited to convey my enthusiasm for it than to savor my enthusiasm for it. It’s one of those films. It landed perfectly for me as a dissection of what romance is — A joke? A Godsend? A dead end? A savior? — And I’ve just never seen these considerations so wonderfully explored on so many different levels.
This is powerful thematic work, every single moment of the film being very much about these ideas, and I hope it finds new life as Roadside Attractions looks to re-launch it here in advance of its April theatrical bow. I’m very much reminded of my reaction to Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” last year, and indeed, this is a film I can easily see sticking around in my top 10 for the next 12 months.
Not since David Wooderson has Matthew McConaughey given us a character so magnetic, so charismatic. His Mud is full of wisdom, lies, romance, remorse, honor, disgrace. He is a treasure trove of virtues, each of them valuable, even when — indeed, especially when — they conflict. Because that’s the story lurking between the lines of the film: the messiness of life, and the promise of redemption around every corner.
McConaughey has a hell of a year coming up, this after already dishing out a stellar 2012. With “Mud,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Dallas Buyers Club” (assuming it releases this year), the actor has another few shots on the awards season goal. And there’s plenty of goodwill left in the tank. But I’d like to light the fuse right here and now for his work in this film. It’s his finest performance to date, Oscar-worthy on every level.
And Nichols, truly gifted with actors, gets stellar performances across the board. Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson all shine, and even fleeting work from Michael Shannon and the great Joe Don Baker leaves you wanting more. But at the center of the whole enterprise is a pair of child actor performances from Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland that grounds the film and would have made or broken the whole thing.
Largely absent from and a bit of a cipher in “The Tree of Life” if there was any real promise there, Sheridan owns this turf. It is one of the great performances from an actor his age, open, receptive, so much going on beneath the surface at times, yet so elegant in its simplicity at others. If McConaughey manages any awards season traction, Sheridan deserves to be right there with him.
And of course, Nichols’s crew deserves major commendation. Adam Stone’s photography, Richard Wright’s production design, Julie Monroe’s film editing, Will Files’ soundscape and, certainly, David Wingo’s original score, are all necessary building blocks for what this film is.
So there. I’m over the moon. Sometimes you just don’t want to bog down in why. This one found a place inside me and it’s staying there. I can just tell. And I hope when it comes around your way, you feel similarly.
“Mud” receives its North American debut tonight at The MARC theater in Park City. It opens April 26 in limited release.
“A lot of junk comes down the river. Some of it can be worth of a lot of money after you clean it up, but a lot of it is just junk. You need to know what things aren’t worth keeping.” About halfway through Mud, Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to the impressive and powerful character drama, Take Shelter, this observation is made to 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) by his best friend’s uncle (Michael Shannon). Much like most of the adult warnings floating around this touching and astute, but somewhat contrived, coming-of-age story, it’s lost on Ellis who, unfortunately, has to learn of worldly disappointment and heartache through experience and bad judgment of his own.
In the midst of dealing with the impending divorce of his parents, Ellis and best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) routinely escape their small town by boating down the river beyond a point they’ve been warned not to cross. But, as is the nature of youthful curiosity, they thwart authority and happen upon Mud (Matthew McConaughey), an escaped criminal with a surprisingly affable and magnetic disposition.
Though Neckbone has a frank and candid disposition, living with his laid back, promiscuous uncle in the absence of his parents, Ellis is prone to manipulation, believing that helping Mud reunite with his one true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), will reaffirm his idealized belief in altruistic human connection. A handful of secondary adult characters see Ellis running up and down the river, collecting various items to take with him, and attempt to warn him of the dangers of implicit trust and getting involved with the business of others—even Juniper gives Ellis knowing empathic looks—but, much like the snake bite metaphor, wherein a bite can only be remedied with anti-venom once in your life, he needs to learn it for himself.
As Nichols already demonstrated in his first two feature films, he has a knack for capturing worldly disappointment and self-doubt with wonderful sagacity. Many coming-of-age stories have been made about children learning that the world is a complicated and disappointing place, but there’s something uniquely devastating about its depiction in Mud.
And even though some of the parallel stories, such as Ellis’ flirtation with an older girl that merely uses him to validate her own ego, have the misfortune of working as sidebar superficial contrivances, the core heart of the story remains strong.
Shot with a classical eye that frames each shot beautifully, but without any distracting or imposing viewpoint, there is a timeless nature to Mud that matches the overriding, universal themes perfectly. As characters repeat cycles of damaging behaviour, or acknowledge their need to escape the unbalanced and emotionally abusive relationships they’ve trapped themselves in, similarly believing in the myth of romantic love, there is a pained observation that not all things in life are worth fighting for.
Because the final act of the film is rather unexpected and over-the-top, it’s unlikely that this ersatz folk tale will be received as well as Take Shelter. But in overlooking some of the tagged on story elements and conveniences, there is a powerful unifying worldly understanding and tone here that demonstrates Nichols’ implicit talent and strong voice.
A close backwoods cousin to Stand By Me (1986), Jeff Nichols’ Mud is an often moving and unpredictable coming of age story that benefits from some striking visuals and all around strong acting from its cast. Much like in Take Shelter (2011), Nichols is very interested in masculinity and what it means to be a man in a tough America, though this time around there’s more in the way of youthful adventures and less in the way of potential doomsday. The filmmaker is pulling from all sorts of other works, though “Huckleberry Finn” is likely the one most will recognize, though the early works of David Gordon Green were on my mind as well. The work however, the work is still that clearly is his own. Not being a huge fan of his earlier work, Mud is top-notch with excellent writing and direction, not to mention the performances by Tye Sheridan and Matthew McConaughey. Reese Witherspoon is no slouch herself, while newcomer Jacob Lofland impresses. Though not perfect, and running about 15 minutes too long, it’s got a lot of things going in its favor. With the right push, I could see this making the long haul from the festival circuit to the awards season.
Teenagers Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Lofland) live in a small southern town, experiencing the small adventures that rural kids tend to in films. They have a plan to claim a boat lodged in a tree on a small island off of the Mississippi, but when they get there, it seems that someone has already claimed it. That person turns out to be Mud (McConaughey), a man who used to live in their town but has been on the run for some time. Neckbone isn’t sure about Mud, but Ellis is instantly taken by him and they form a friendship of sorts, helping Mud with food and supplies. Mud is a fugitive due to an incident involving an ex boyfriend of his longtime love Juniper (Witherspoon), and he’s returned home to meet back up with her. She’s come back, but she’s seemingly brought along a bunch of bounty hunters waiting to exact revenge on Mud. This leads the boys to get involved with trying to reunite the lovers while keeping Mud from being caught. At the same time, Ellis is experiencing changes in his home life and a first step towards a relationship with a high school girl. It’s a lot to cram in here, but Nichols manages to pull it off.
00mud-first-lookHelming the feature is Tye Sheridan, much like he was in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), though I prefer his work here. Sheridan has a very promising career ahead of him, as he’s able to do a lot of emotional weightlifting without resorting to overacting. I found myself very taken by his performance. In a lighter turn, first timer Jacob Lofland is good as well, though not as strong as Sheridan. As for Matthew McConaughey, this could prove to be a stronger year then those who believe 2012 was the year of the esteemed actor. A very baity role, this is more a supporting turn than anything else, as his screen time is pretty limited. He makes the most of it though, and when Mud isn’t on the screen, you’re thinking about him.
With even less time in the film, Reese Witherspoon doesn’t blow you away, but it’s a very different character than we’re used to seeing from her. Michael Shannon pops up as Neckbone’s uncle, while Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon play Ellis’ parents. The supporting cast also includes the likes of Sam Shepard, who steals a scene or two, Joe Don Baker, and Bonnie Sturdivant.
Jeff Nichols sometimes is a little on the nose with his direction and writing, but he also throws in enough curveballs to keep you on your toes, namely during the third act. At two hours and fifteen minutes, he can’t sustain the spark that fill the first hour, but he ends things in a very strong way. Nichols’ script is very much in the style of a novel, but his direction is incredibly focused on nature. It’s an interesting mix and he pulls it off quite nicely. He still falls into the bad habit of repeating scenes but the surrounding material here is good enough to limit the damage.
Mud likely won’t garner the same attention that Shelter did, but Jeff Nichols is a filmmaker to keep your eye on. He’s got a masterpiece somewhere in him, I just know it. I also can’t wait to see Tye Sheridan grow up before our eyes. With Matthew McConaughey, my guess is that we’ll be talking more about him this year, whether for Mud or something else in his arsenal.
3 1/2 stars rating
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