Every so often, the movie gods send us films that permit interesting comparisons despite completely dissimilar approaches to the same subject. Such is the case with Matthew McConaughey’s latest, a poignant love story about a man’s unrequited love and how he deals with that rejection. It would be hard to imagine characters as dissimilar as Jay Gatsby and the gently sinister loner here who goes by the nickname Mud - yet both suffer from abiding fixations on women who consistently make their lovers miserable simply by being simultaneously desirable and unattainable. As Gatsby enlists the assistance of his next door neighbor Nick Caraway as go-between with Daisy, Gatsby’s married lover, so Mud employs Ellis, an impressionable fourteen year old to serve as a clandestine contact with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) Mud’s first and only love. And like Gatsby’s Daisy, Juniper sends mixed signals designed to lure even as they reject…<span style="mso-spacerun:yes">
Writer/director Jeff Nichols, whose previous film (Take Shelter) garnered more than two dozen awards last year, follows that dark journey into paranoia with this deft love story that combines an intriguing examination of Mud’s romantic longings with Ellis’ simultaneous coming-of-age. Moving with the same leisurely calmness as the waters of the Mississippi Delta which physically unite and emotionally divide the film’s characters, Mud delicately combines the dramatic tensions in its increasingly explosive storyline with a meditation on the way some men form hopelessly romantic attachments and the bittersweet process that arises when they’re forced to come to grips with them. It’s been a long time since male romantic relationships – both adolescent and adult – have been depicted as insightfully as there are here.
As Mud, McConaughey delivers the latest in a of string roles that sharply contrast with the uninspiring chick flics that occupied the actor in the last decade; observing his recent work (Bernie, Killer Joe & Magic Mike) provides ample evidence of the considerable talent which too often seemed buried under the actor’s “beefcake” image. Employing the soft drawl of his native Texas, McConaughey exudes machismo and sensitivity in equal measure as he involves his young protégé in an effort to lure Juniper into a life on the run. It’s been ages since an audience has been able to root so thoroughly for a wanted felon and yet it’s also not hard to grasp just why Juniper’s reluctant to commit. Witherspoon’s small but crucial role nearly equals McConaughey’s in subtle understatement.
But it’s Ellis who ultimately takes over the film; first-time actor Tye Sheridan’s expressive face and achingly lonely expressions wordlessly convey the tensions facing youngsters facing the divorce of parents, the necessity of forced relocation and the awkward perils of initial infatuation. Ellis’ father (Ray McKinnon) struggles to make a living as a commercial fisherman operating out of the family’s riverfront home. His mother (Sarah Paulson) has grown impatient with what she sees as her dead-end life and both parents pull their son in different emotional directions as they play out their own problems. So the boy spends most of his time with his best friend Neckbone, played to perfection by Jacob Lofland, yet another freshman actor. Together, they connive to assist Mud for the most unlikely of getaways while also warily skirting a group of ominous thugs with a score to settle...
Sam Shepard and Joe Don Baker deliver on-the-money performances as a pair of aging gunman, the former squarely in Mud’s camp and the latter heading the private posse trying to find Mud before the authorities do. As the plot works its way to a surprisingly satisfying climax, Ellis conducts his first courtship, learns how painfully adults sometimes dissemble, discovers the value of a personal consistent code of conduct - - and how painful it can be to maintain.
Jeff Nichol’s in his early 30’s and Mud is only his third film. But its commercial and critical success should produce ample opportunity to continue creating movies as exciting and insightful as this one.
The Verdict? A gem, pure and simple and my early vote for one of the best films of the year. See it before Mud slips out of your neighborhood theater.
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