MUD-Poster

Atlanta Film Festival 2013 Screening Review: MUD

Oh great, Matthew McConaughey’s shirt is off again…

The opening imagery of MUD displays a distinctly Southern town, seemingly untouched by time: endless lines of “Mom-and-Pop” shops, rusted bikes left unattended in corner store lots, sprawling swamp bogs, beat-up cars rolling down empty roads. There’s a mysticism and magic to the locale that make it impossible to tell if we’re in 1960 or 2013.

This timeless quality lends to the very literary feel of Jeff Nichols’s (Take Shelter) touching coming-of-age story, set against a rural backdrop. This is a film that plays like reading a classic American novel in the shade of a tree on a summer day. It’s engrossing, frequently moving, and ultimately emotionally satisfying.

MUD tells the story of Ellis (Tye Sheridan), an impressionable boy in the most formative year of his life, whose outlook is shaken by a life-changing announcement from his parents. By chance, Ellis encounters the titular Mud, played by Matthew McConaughey. Mud is disheveled and mysterious, a charming rogue of a man, whose steadfast notions of love and justice provide just the sort of ideals that Ellis desperately wants to still believe.

Ellis joins Mud’s crusade to be reunited with the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), but as that quest becomes more dangerous, and the morality of it more murky, Ellis is forced to question his dedication.

There are no villains in Mud. Surely, there are “bad guys”: characters to root against who threaten to defeat or harm the heroes. But no person in this story is evil, or does bad things for its own sake. There’s a goodness that permeates the film and its characters, which keeps every scene of conflict from spilling into the obvious, or cliché. These are flawed creatures, acting in accordance with what they believe to be right, even when it causes them to hurt others… even those they care about.

While it’s McConaughey’s face plastered on the poster, make no mistake: this is Ellis’s story. This is a boy making the choices and having the experiences that will determine the kind of man he will become for the rest of his life, and it speaks to the quality of the script that the audience cares about something so intangible when other characters have far more physically at stake. Tye Sheridan’s genuine performance makes it impossible not to care for his well-being.

What’s most impressive about the script is that it creates a compelling narrative surrounding the notion of learning to let go. It would be easy for this to lead to an inactive or tedious story, but instead it remains consistently compelling.

McConaughey’s willingness to play so questionable and scruffy a character does him credit. He plays Mud balancing between old-fashioned charm and a recklessness, which would clearly capture the attention of an impressionable teen. He also shows remarkable restraint in not taking his shirt off until nearly 70 MINUTES INTO THE MOVIE (!!!), which is pretty much a twist of Shyamalan-dian proportions.

Other standouts in the cast are the aforementioned Reese Witherspoon, and hometown hero Ray McKinnon, who both convey great depth of character with a minimum of screen-time. Both turn in subdued performances that allow the audience to perceive the emotional scars their characters are so fervently trying to conceal, and strength within the characters they may not even be aware of.

At 131 minutes, Mud bears some fat that could easily have been trimmed. Some pacing issues appear in the second act, causing the narrative to lose momentum. Frequent Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon shows up as the guardian of Ellis’s best friend, and while it’s kind of fun to see General Zod hanging out in the swamp, the role could easily have been cut without greatly impacting the story.

Still, the impressive story and honest performances make this a film you’ll feel better about yourself after seeing.

4 out of 5 stars.

 

Olufemi is a Mechanical Engineer by day, amateur screenwriter by night; hence a critical thinker who stays up way too late thinking about stuff most people don’t. He uses semicolons frequently.

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