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Thursday, April 25, 2013

MUD Review

Tye Sheridan (left), Jacob Lofland (middle) and Matthew McConaughey (right) star in Jeff Nichols' MUD, in theaters April 26th.Photo credit: James Bridges
2013, 130 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking

Review by Joshua Handler

In 2011, Jeff Nichols directed one of the best films of that year, Take Shelter.  Now, he has Mud, another fantastic film starring Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan with Reese Witherspoon in a supporting role.  It is about a young boy, Ellis (Sheridan) who finds a fugitive, Mud (McConaughey), hiding out on an island near his house in the American South.  As his parents' marriage begins to break down and the threat of losing his house lingers, Ellis begins to form a strong bond with Mud, but Mud has a history that begins to catch up with him.

Mud, as many have pointed out, feels like it was adapted from a classic American novel.  It seems like something Mark Twain would have written if he was alive today.  Mud has a classic narrative structure with a familiar arc, but that is part of what makes it so magical.  Through memorable and likable characters and a satisfying conclusion, writer/director Jeff Nichols subverts the clich├ęs.  

Nichols has a gift for working with actors that most other directors wish they could have.  He manages to get powerhouse performances out of everyone in his casts, whether it be a main character or a supporting one.  Matthew McConaughey gives what may be his best performance yet.  While it isn't as entertaining or lively as his character Dallas in Magic Mike, it is deeply troubled, wild, yet loving.  McConaughey's career, as I have discussed before, is one of the most intriguing in recent memory.  Having been known for a period of dumb romantic comedies and action movies prior to 2012, McConaughey emerged last year in no less than FOUR films, three of which were highly acclaimed.  His performance in Mud is truly revelatory.

As Ellis, Tye Sheridan is also powerful.  Sheridan gave a strong performance in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life in 2011 and is equally as good, if not better in Mud.  Ellis has a rough life that is spiraling out of control.  Sheridan captures the adolescent turmoil with poignancy and maturity.

The supporting cast all give solid performances.  Reese Witherspoon was featured heavily in the advertising, but is only in a couple of scenes.  She is very good in those scenes, though.

As mentioned, the story for Mud is completely compelling and is very well-paced.  For a film of Mud's ambition, it impressive that Nichols balanced all of the story-lines as well as he did and brought them all to a satisfying close as well as he did.  His direction is tight and each shot is masterfully framed through Adam Stone's (Take ShelterCompliance) cinematography which captures the texture and atmosphere of the South.  The rich warm colors and gorgeous landscape are put on full display.  But, this is not an epic.  It is quite intimate and Nichols' direction evokes this intimacy through his complete devotion to his characters.

While it is evident that Mud is set in or around the present day, it very well could be set in the 19th Century, just as Take Shelter could have been set anywhere in the past 50-60 years (I am confident Take Shelter could have been twisted into a Cold War allegory).  This freedom from a time period shows the power of Mud's story; it doesn't rely on the era it's set in, it simply uses it as a background detail.

Overall, Mud isn't Take Shelter, but it is a masterful drama with powerful performances, a wonderful script, and smart direction.  It will certainly please many teens, while still providing the adults with much to think about.  If Nichols keeps making films of this caliber, he will certainly go down as one the great modern American drama directors.


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