Thursday, January 2, 2014

Mud

Directed by Jeff Nichols.
2013. Rated PG-13, 130 minutes.
Cast:
Tye Sheridan
Jacob Lofland
Ray McKinnon
Joe Don Baker


Bestest buddies Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Lofland) are a pair of fourteen year olds who spend most of their summer days exploring their surroundings when they’re not working with someone in their families. On a small island near their homes, the boys discover a boat lodged in a tree. They surmise it got that way due to the recent flooding in the area. With no one around, they claim it as their own. However, they quickly learn that someone has beat them to the punch. Someone has actually been living in the boat. That person is the scraggly looking and aptly name Mud (McConaughey). He appears to be practically coated in a layer of the stuff. Immediately, he begins bartering with the boys to bring him things from the mainland. Eventually, this evolves into running errands pertaining to the girlfriend he says he is waiting for. Meanwhile, we see that Ellis’ houme is not all that stable as his mom and dad appear to be on the verge of breaking up. For him, hard lessons in life and love ensue.

We like Ellis right away. He is adventurous, sure of himself, curious as all get out, and yet, still very na├»ve about the way relationships between men and wome work. He thinks it’s all black and white. Even when he’s shown it is not, he clings to his most romantic notions. This is the part of him we like most. It’s the part we want to protect. It is also the part that makes us want to shake him enough for him to realize things are not so simple. Tye Sheridan gives a wonderful performance to bring all of this across. He never feels too old nor too young. He feels fourteen.

We are not quite as fond of Ellis’ trusty sidekick Neckbone. It’s just a bit tougher to figure him out. As bits and pieces of his story are revealed, we certainly empathize with him. This stems from the fact that we realize his guardian, his Uncle Galen (Shannon), has very questionable parenting skills.

In that light, it almost becomes easy to see why two seemingly head strong young boys would become enamored with Mud, the homeless guy they bump into. He’s a man by all outward appearances, but he shares many of their same ideals. Mud is a hopelessly romantic man-child hiding from something. Of course, we eventually find out what that is, but even then his problems are revealed to be multi-faceted. We want to hate him, not so much for any harm he’s caused as for his potential to do so. However, his romanticism is so strong we can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. He doesn’t charm us like a number of McConaughey’s other characters. Instead, he comes off desperate and pathetic. This may be what draws the boys to him. Even though Mud is ultimately pulling their strings, he does it in such a way the boys at least feel like they have some measure of control over their interactions with him.


What we are and are not able to control is ultimately the dilemma most of the characters deal with, both emotionally and situationally. This is at the root of nearly every struggle. It is certainly that way with Mud, Ellis, and Ellis’ dad Senior (played wonderfully by Ray McKinnon). It’s interesting to note that the person who seems most in control is Ellis’ mom (Paulson), one of only two adult females in the cast. Arguably, she is the only one. As the movie progresses, she seizes more and more control of her own life.

On the other hand, there is Juniper (Witherspoon), the object of Mud’s desire. She is a complete and perfect mess. What it is that she and Mud see in each other is essentially the same thing. They each look at the other as the one that has already and will continue to save them. Starting with these two and permeating the rest of the movie are these delusions of the heroism of oneself and of others. Even the relationship between Ellis and Neckbone is affected by this.

By the time we get to the end, all the various strands are swirling about but pulled together in a hail of bullets. My first thought was that this is taking the easy way out of a story that spends lots of effort to complicate itself. It even sets up what at first glance is your run of the mill happy ending. Studying it a bit more in depth makes me thing the movie ends on an incredibly dark note. True, the main characters are all smiles and the sun in shining when the end credits roll. Still, I’m left with the sinking feeling that I’m merely seeing how the next repetition of a pair of vicious cycles starts. Worse yet, one of these cycles is the same as the other, just at an earlier stage. Therefore, Mud is a movie that allows you to believe everything is neatly tied in a bow, if that’s what you want, but also makes clear the possibility of a not-so-bright future.

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