Monday, June 10, 2013

Water and Earth Make "Mud"

      I still haven't seen writer/director Jeff Nichols debut feature Shotgun Stories, but trust me that it will feature in a future Rewind series.  It's already on the list.  I fell a little bit in love with his work back in 2011 with his sophomore effort Take Shelter as anyone who read the Best of 2011 series should easily be able to attest.  Among other honors, that film's star Michael Shannon received Best Actor of the Year.
     Now it's 2013, and Nichols is back for a third time with a film that is being hailed as the vessel of Matthew McConaughey's best performance EVER.  My anticipation was so high that I was a little scared to go and see the picture.  I was going to be SOOO hurt if it failed to live up to my expectations, much less my hopes.  After all, I never see a five star film THIS early in the year.  I shouldn't have worried.  Nichols has pulled it off once again.  His film making retains all the raw energy of his previous effort while becoming slightly more polished with the wisdom of experience (and quite probably more secure backing).
     The story is a total departure from Take Shelter.  Whereas that film was surreal and trippy, Mud (like its title character and his namesake) is rooted firmly in the dirt of consensual reality.  Every character is a study in desperation, from the father whose world is crumbling around him (Ray McKinnon) to the mother who is removing the bricks that support it because they form her prison (Sarah Paulson).  We see it in the eyes of Ellis's best friend (Jacob Lofland) and mirrored in those of his sex crazed uncle (Michael Shannon).  We see it in every reaction of the man who was Mud's surrogate father (Sam Shepard). Reese Witherspoon seems to embody desperation in this film the way that Carey Mulligan became sadness in Shame.  I hope that this leads to some better casting opportunities for this talented actress.  This entire ensemble is amazing, utterly believable, never missing a note.
     The film's true lead is child actor Tye Sheridan, and he gives what will surely be remembered at the very least as one of the year's best juvenile performances.  As Ellis, he is caught between all possible worst case scenarios.  As he watches his family disintegrate, he wishes desperately to find some evidence in the world of the power of love.  Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be given to Mr. Sheridan is that he brought limited experience in craft or life to bear upon a difficult role and held his own squarely opposite a seasoned actor finally coming into his own in a way he never quite has before.
     Which brings us squarely to Matthew McConaughey and the role of Mud.  Mud, as a character, is almost a primal creature, far more tied to the spiritual world AND the natural world than the world of civilization.  He sees things with both a child's optimism and an adult's pragmatism, and it is a sad wisdom that he brings to bear.  McConaughey brings all of that to the table, and more.  Add in an intelligence that shines through a film of ignorance in a way that proves itself to be well beyond mere cunning.  Add in natural sex appeal that only enhances the feral qualities.  Talk about an actor FINALLY beginning to live up to the iceberg of potential that the charisma and charming drawl were only the tip of.
     In fact, in Mr. Nichols and Mr. McConaughey's hands the character of Mud becomes archetypal, a symbol for the land that spawned him and the way of life that is dying upon it.  Mud is what you get where the water meets the land, but Mud finds that those he gave his love to those who have used it unwisely and created a world in which he no longer has any place.  I don't know if Dallas Buyer's Club will make everyone forget about this performance by Awards time or not, but I feel certain it will be one of my top ten lead acting turns this year.  
     IF Mr. McConaughey becomes a serious contender for his work here, I could see Screenplay or Picture nods become possibilities as well although the proposition seems more worthy than likely at this point in the game. If the film WERE to break into technical recognition, my bet would easily be upon the camera work of cinematographer Adam Stone whose work here is entirely different from what he did in Take Shelter. In that film the world seemed utterly bleak, desolate and unreal.  The landscape of Mud is almost too real, creating an environment that is utterly alive, active, and often dangerous.  It must be said, however, that production values were noticeably high across the board.  This is only the second film 2013 film that I've reviewed, but it ABSOLUTELY deserves...5 of 5 stars.

  Related articles:  Senna, Take 13 (Take Shelter review), Innkeepers of Blood and Shame (Shame review),
Rewind Series - 2010 Edition, Best of 2011 - The TechsThe Performances: Part 1The Performances: Part 2,  Writers and DirectorsBest Picture (concluded)

Want to know more about the members of the cast? Click to view their IMDB profile:
Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker.

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