Monday, June 3, 2013

Mud


Alternate Title:  Venue for Shirt Removal, Volume XIII

One sentence synopsis:   Two boys from rural Arkansas befriend a drifter with a violent past, and try to help him reconnect with his old girlfriend.


Things Havoc liked:  At some point, some years ago, Matthew McConaughey decided that he was tired of playing leading men, and began instead playing scuzy people engaged in sleazy business.  As I hated every movie he served as the leading man of, I felt this was an excellent idea, and have followed him through such films as Bernie, Killer Joe, and Magic Mike.  While Mud is not quite a step forward along this career renaissance path, as it casts him in the role of a heroic, misunderstood loner who removes his shirt (of course), it still represents an improvement over his earlier work, if only because Mud, despite what the trailers would tell you, is not about McConaughey at all, but about a pair of teenage kids played by unknown child actors Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland.

Yes, Mud, pitched to audiences as a crime drama, is really a coming of age story centered around two kids named Ellis and Neckbone, boys from the rural backwaters of Arkansas who live in fractured or fracturing homes and who meet and gradually become entangled in the lives of drifter Mud, his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), his 'father' Tom (Sam Shepard) and the men searching for him (led by the seemingly immortal Joe Don Baker).  While Mud forms the focus of the plot, he's hardly the main character, and fortunately the two kids (particularly Lofland) act nearly everyone else off the screen.  Too many coming-of-age movies are maudlin reminiscences on what some middle-aged writer thinks it was like to be young, or require the actors in question to recite dialogue which no teenager has ever uttered.  Not here.  Ellis and Neckbone have exactly the perfect combination of deep worldliness and astonishing naivety that many teenagers have but do not commonly evidence, and their conversation and demeanor, around one another and around the rest of the cast, is so perfectly right that it essentially carries the film.

Not that the boys don't have help.  The movie has a large, ensemble cast, including Deadwood alums Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson as Ellis' separating parents, and soon-to-be-Zod Michael Shannon as Neckbone's adoptive uncle.  Every one of these people, including those listed further above, carries just the right note for the area.  Poor they may be, and redneck, but the movie never makes them into stereotypes, either in the drunken asshole sense, the bible-thumping fanatic sense, or the wise, magic poor man sense.  It may sound like nothing, but a movie that manages to portray a dozen different characters as fully, believably human, is a rare commodity.  And the film has the sense to simply let the characters interact and see where they go, rather than trying to drag things out through "shocking revelations" or sudden twists of plot.


Things Havoc disliked:  Of course the director can only restrain himself for so long.  The entire climax of the film (which I shall not spoil here) needed to be rethought, and the notion of the bounty hunters come to town to look for Mud was simply unworthy of a film so staunchly real.  I do not deny that there are armed men for hire in the world willing to track a fugitive down and kill him (a number of them are on reality TV), but surely they do not conduct themselves the way they are portrayed as doing here.

But the other issue is McConaughey.  No, he doesn't do a bad job, far from it.  His character is reasonably interesting and works well off the kids (basically the only characters he ever meets).  The issue is that his character was just not well thought out.  He is a criminal and a killer, yes, but the movie immediately neuters this by constructing a set of circumstances around his crimes obviously contrived for the sole purpose of making him "still a good guy".  It is churlish to criticize a movie for not being another movie, but it strikes me that a far more interesting film could have been made about the same characters interacting with a killer who was a real killer, not some sanitized saint who poses no threat to anybody but them what deserve it.  At the very least, the film could have tried to ratchet up the uncertainty factor with Mud, but unfortunately it seems so afraid that people will spend some length of the film disliking McConaughey enough that it won't take any dramatic chances with his character.


Final thoughts:    Fortunately for the movie though, all of the characters besides Mud himself are so real and so interesting in their realness, that the film doesn't really suffer from turning Mud from a character into a plot device.  The movie is not long, but the pace is slow and lugubrious, and lets the tension build naturally and not from plot absurdities, at least most of the time.  What we're left with is a character study with multiple, interesting characters, all of them played well, and with dialog and shot construction that is both interesting and true.  What more, honestly, do you want?

Final Score:  7/10

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