Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Genre: Drama, Crime
Run Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon
Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories)
With a name like Mud (opening today), it may be easy to miss. But miss Mud, and you'll be missing one of the best films to come out of the first half of 2013.
Sometimes, you don't need to over-do it with style, or think so far out-of-the-box as to re-define a genre. Mud takes a fairly straight-forward plot and refuses to muck things up with artistic enhancements or visual gimmickry. Director Jeff Nichols - who wowed critics, including those in my Detroit Film Critics Society with his previous film, Take Shelter - relies instead on an impressive ensemble cast and some simple story-telling basics to weave a real gem of a film. It's quite the achievement, because the story itself seems to border on hokey when said out loud, and it's a bit of a mystery as to why things work as well they do.
Mud focuses on two boys, Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland), who live in near poverty on the banks of an Arkansas river. For fun, they take out their dad's boat to a remote island where the two fart around and cause mild mischief, as teenagers are known to do.
That's when they meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey), an outlaw of sorts who is hiding on the island and living in of all places, a boat suspended up in a tree, and Ellis establishes a bond with this mysterious character. Mud uses Ellis to bring messages to Mud's estranged gal, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who does so on the sly.
See what I mean? It doesn't sound all too impressive. But there is a uniqueness about Mud - call it a heart or a spirit - that permeates.
Each character - in his/her own way - is stuck in the mud and each needs a bit of a push or pull in order to shake loose. Ray McKinnon is stellar in a supporting role, as are Witherspoon, Lofland, Sarah Paulson, Sam Shepard and Jeff Nichols' go-to man, Michael Shannon. Of course, the leads - Tye Sheridan and Matthew McConaughey - carry the film. McConaughey in particular, has strung together one hell-of-a-performance after another, with Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Bernie and The Lincoln Lawyer, on his recent resume. Yes, he appears without his shirt in Mud too, but that running joke should take a back seat to the amazing talent this guy has begun to show us over this recent stretch.
Mud is one of those films that probably won't top the box office, nor will people flock to the theater on the basis of the trailer. But it's as good a film as you'll see. Sure, it's a coming-of-age story, for its characters and also for its director. Nichols seems much more interested in telling a great story than in creating a great film, and in doing so, has delivered both.
There is a cheese-tastic and unnecessary ending that surely will provoke more than a few eye rolls, but overall, Mudis a squeaky-clean success.
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