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Flicks - Mud
Mud 13/08/08 2:56
Flicks - Mud
Matthew McConaughey plays a man on the run from the law who enlists the help of two boys, in Jeff Nichols' latest film, Mud. Writer-director Jeff Nichols made his debut a few years ago with Shotgun Stories, a sharply observed little tale of revenge among poor white families in Arkansas. Next came Take Shelter, a disturbing story of a quiet family man coming apart from fear of an impending apocalypse. Both starred Michael Shannon, and both had courage along with a distinctively independent point of view. In his new film called simply Mud, Nichols returns to his Arkansas roots, with some bigger stars and a slightly bigger budget, and it's interesting to see what the attempt to appeal to a wider audience entails. At times there's a feeling of compromise, but overall the man stays true to the integrity of his artistic vision.
The story seems to take place in a time before cell phones—I would guess the 60s, but I'm not sure. Fourteen-year-old Ellis lives on a houseboat, helping his father eke out a living as a fisherman. His parents seem to be headed for a split, and Ellis escapes the pressure by taking off on a small motorboat with his best friend, a pugnacious kid nicknamed Neckbone. On an island near the local river's entrance to the Mississippi, they run across a homeless fugitive, a scruffy smart-aleck with a pistol who calls himself "Mud" and is played by Matthew McConaughey. Mud's story is that he needs to reunite with his girl, a local beauty named Juniper, and he also needs to repair a boat that landed at the top of some trees during a recent flood, so as to get away from this town for good with his girl. And for that, he needs the help of the two boys. Since boys love adventure, they enlist in Mud's cause, but of course he's left out some details of his story.
McConaughey is just perfect playing this kind of character, a handsome loser who's a big shot in his own mind but trouble for everyone else. Lately he's been shedding his stoner dude image and doing darker, more interesting stuff, and this is another winner for him. Ellis is played by young Tye Sheridan, who had a small role in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, but here in only his second film plays the film's point of view character with utter confidence. Ellis is an emotionally volatile but sensitive kid whose desire to believe in true love pulls him in to the drama of Mud and his girl Juniper, played by Reese Witherspoon. Also on hand is Sam Shepard as a crusty old neighbor who has some past history with Mud, and perennial Nichols favorite Michael Shannon as Neckbone's foolish uncle, who likes to shell diving in the river in the most ridiculous old-fashioned looking diving helmet you'll ever see.
Nichols is great at evoking the atmosphere of rural life on the river, the rhythm of work and play, and the seriousness of kids who want to be more grown up than they are. However, the plot involves some men who are out to kill Mud, and this is where I think Nichols' desire to make something in a popular genre creates effects that are less true. It doesn't come off as integral to the film, but on the other hand, if it helps make the films of Jeff Nichols more well known, maybe it's for the good.