Sunday, May 5, 2013
I haven’t seen a coming-of-age adventure story quite like “Mud” maybe since “Stand By Me” almost three decades ago. Though set in the present, “Mud” has that film’s timeless quality, like a lived experience remembered with precision and powerfully felt.
It’s about Ellis (Tye Sheridan), an Arkansas boy on the early side of adolescence who lives with his parents in a houseboat along the Mississippi. One day after school, he and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), paddle out to a small island, where they happen upon a most unusual sight: a boat stuck high up in the branches of a tree. It seems to be intact, and they begin remaking it into a treehouse of sorts, but Ellis quickly realizes that someone’s already living in it.
That someone turns out to be an unkempt, vaguely but not overly menacing man who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and claims to be a fugitive from the law, wanted for killing a Texas scion who became physical with his on-again-off-again soulmate, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud is desperately hungry, and offers the boys a deal: bring him food, and he’ll give them the tree-boat. (Later, when he needs the boat to effect his and Juniper’s escape, he changes the deal: bring him a functioning outboard motor, and he’ll give them his pistol.) Neckbone’s skeptical of Mud’s story – and less trusting of his motives than is Ellis – but the boys agree to help him out, mostly out of an itching for something exciting to do.
“Mud” has a bone-deep sense of place and captures as do few films of its kind how it feels to be a young person on the precipice of maturity, having outgrown some trappings of childhood and not others, asked to take on some of the duties of adulthood but not allowed to share in all of its rewards. It’s about developing one’s self, one’s sense of ethics and integrity, what it takes to become a man, how it feels when you get there, how it feels when you never do. Special mention must be made of the work of Sheridan and Lofland as Ellis and Neckbone. Child actors capable of this kind of understated truth – neither performance includes an instant of exaggeration or playing to the camera – are exceedingly rare, and almost never American. These are performances of such lived-in perfection that if you drove down to this sleepy river town, you’d expect to find Ellis and Neckbone riding their bikes alongside you. Sheridan and Lofland give honor to the craft of child acting.
As for McConaughey, it’s taken him a long time to escape the lame romcoms of his Sexiest Man Alive past and live up to the promise of “A Time to Kill.” But he’s been worth the wait. His work in 2012 alone would be a career year for any actor. From the indignant D.A. Danny Buck in “Bernie” to the tanaholic impresario Dallas in “Magic Mike” to Ward Jansen, the reporter with a big secret of his own in “The Paperboy,” to the iconic title role in my #1 film of the year, “Killer Joe,” McConaughey took command of the screen and the audience with the ease and aplomb of a master. Here, he holds us in his thrall as surely as he does Ellis and Neckbone. At this moment, there’s not another actor in Hollywood whose name makes me as eager to see a new movie and as hopeful for its potential.
Unless I’m forgetting something, they’ve made the best movie set in Arkansas since Carl Franklin’s great “One False Move” twenty years ago. Director Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter”) is deathly allergic to cliché and often purposefully upends the expectations instilled in us by generations of filmmakers happy to rely on shopworn tropes. Even in a tense moment in “Mud,” after the Texas scion’s rich daddy and a convoy of bounty hunters have gotten onto Mud’s trail (and by extension, Juniper’s and the boys’), when the camera follows Ellis down a motel corridor, it does not mean that the bad guys are right behind him.
Still, there’s something that keeps “Mud” from four full stars, though I’m not exactly sure what. Maybe a more perfect ending, one that would give the movie more enduring resonance. (Days afterward, what I remember most is how much I enjoyed it while it was playing.) The plot becomes slightly less interesting toward the end, culminating in a shootout that’s not as unique or special as what’s come before. It might help, too, if the character of Juniper held for us the same mythic status it does for Mud. Witherspoon turns in a solid performance, but is no Helen of Troy.