Friday, January 17, 2014

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2013: Mud

  When I was working on the recap of "the middle," it was tempting to put Mud in the "Novel-less Adaptations," but I decided I liked it too damn much to keep the film out of the best of the year. Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter)'s film doesn't necessarily play like a novel on film, but in many ways it will remind viewers of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which, according to the director was intentional. Nichols, in fact, described Mud as "Sam Peckinpah directing a Mark Twain Story." That first part didn't really occur to me while watching Mud, but I can understand how that would fit in.

 Mud is one of those rare movies that's about kids but isn't bogged down with what I like to call "dumb kid movie crap" like cutaways to animal reaction shots and people getting hit in the nuts a lot (even Hugo has a scene like that, where Sacha Baron Cohen runs into a pole, groin first, and Scorsese cuts to his dog watching.) Instead, it's a little more tonally consistent with something like Stand By Me, but with the aforementioned Twain influence. Everybody has a reason for doing what they do, and most of them make bad decisions, but they mean well, and not everything is wrapped up nicely with a bow at the end (SPOILER).

 Ellis (Tye Sheridan) lives on a river in Arkansas with his parents, Senior (Ray McKinnon) and Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson), who aren't having such a good go of things right now. Ellis isn't too concerned about that, because his friend Nate (Jacob Lofland), better known as "Neckbone," found an island up river with a cool surprise. A recent flood left a boat stuck up in a tree, and the boys claim it as their own when they sneak out to the island. The only problem is that somebody's already living in the boat: a stranger who calls himself "Mud" (Matthew McConaughey), who says he's meeting somebody on the island. At first, he just asks the boys to help bring him food while he waits, but when it becomes clearer why Mud is on the island and not in town, plans change...

 Ellis trusts Mud implicitly, even though Neckbone sees something disingenuous about the gregarious stranger. Mud doesn't sleep in the same place twice, and his two prized possessions are his shirt and his gun, and the reason he needs the latter is more important than the former. Mud did something that has the attention of the wrong people: Carver (Paul Sparks) and King (Joe Don Baker) arrive in town not long after the boys meet Mud, and they aren't looking to talk to him. They're also watching Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the woman Mud's supposed to be meeting. Mud and Juniper are lovers, but it's complicated.

 What I find so refreshing about Mud is that while this is going on, Ellis and Neckbone continue living their lives. They can't put everything aside and just help Mud out, there's work to be done. Ellis helps Senior deliver fish around town, and Neckbone helps out his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) dig for clams and oysters (?). There are nice touches, particularly with Galen, who isn't in the movie much - I didn't even realize it was Michael Shannon until the second time I saw him - but who I'm guessing used to be in a punk band and who is always working on his home-made diver's helmet. Ellis also defends the honor of May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), a older girl he knew before she went to high school, and she takes a liking to the 14 year old.

 Like the Twain stories that inspire Mud, the film alternates between a fugitive on the run and slice of life anecdotes, and does so seamlessly, eventually blending everything together. Ellis and Neckbone find a novel way to get in touch with Juniper while she's being watched, even if it doesn't end so well at first for one of them. They have to steal supplies to help fix the boat, and Ellis learns there are repercussions. He doesn't live in a vacuum, and eventually Senior finds out. I haven't even mentioned Ellis' mysterious neighbor across the river, Tom (Sam Shepard), who knew Mud when he was younger and knows a great deal more about his relationship with Juniper than Ellis realizes at first.

 There's deception at play, some innocent, some not so, but Mud isn't exactly what he seems to be. He's made bad decisions before, and the mess he's in is too much even for Tom to get involved. At least, that's what he tells Ellis. Mud is convinced the "old assassin" will come around. Discovering that the world is more complicated than what's presented is the through-line for Ellis in the story: as his parents decide to split up (and, along with that, to let the river boat be scheduled for demolition), Ellis has to learn to deal with the fact that not everybody says what they mean, and that sucker punching people doesn't always settle problems. Sometimes they punch back.

 Sheridan (who played the older brother in The Tree of Life) is magnetic, as is McConaughey, who wins the boys over with his charm but slowly reveals himself to be a man in way over his head. Aside from an explosion of violence near the end (hence the Peckinpah part) and scattered profanity, this is the kind of movie you could watch with kids, especially pre-teens, that would have the same sort of impact a movie like Stand By Me did when I was that age. Mud is straight forward, assured filmmaking and a whole lot of fun to watch, which is always welcome around these parts. It's also funny most of the time, but can be serious without getting maudlin. I couldn't say with any authority what Mark Twain and Sam Peckinpah would think, but I'm sure happy I saw Mud.

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