Tuesday, April 30, 2013

'Mud' (2013) directed by Jeff Nichols

First things first: there is much to admire in Mud.  But despite its considerable riches, it’s a difficult film to recommend.  Mud is Jeff Nichols follow-up to the critically acclaimed Take Shelter, a film that I shamefully haven’t watched yet, despite the universal praise directed at it.  In a Q&A after the film he explained that it’s a project that’s been in development for about 10 years, and it’s clearly a personal film with a hell of a lot of thought put into it.

Matthew McConaughey stars as the eponymous Mud, the axis around which the film turns.  He’s a fugitive hiding out on a river island, living in a boat suspended high in the trees. His only desires to be reunited with his true love, Juniper (Reece Witherspoon) and escape the clutches of both the law and the hitmen hunting for him.  

Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and Ellis (Tye Sheridan)
We view him through the eyes of a young boy, Ellis (Tye Sheridan).  Ellis is wallowing in emotional quicksand: his parents are getting divorced, he’s hit the first stage of puberty and trying to understand women - as a result of his turmoil Mud’s relationship with Juniper becomes a model of purity and devotion that he desperately wants to see succeed.  

Let’s start with the positives.  Every performance in this film is magnificent.  Matthew McConaughey is having a fantastic run of films at the moment, with Magic Mike, Killer Joe, The Paperboy and this under his belt in the last year alone we can truly be said to be living in a McConaissance (unfortunately I didn’t coin that).  Mud is a beaten up, dirty, dangerous and slightly feral wildman - but under this pretty threatening exterior is an obviously vulnerable, gentlemanly romantic.  It’s the kind of role McConaughey excels in - making a character with innumerable off-putting characteristics into someone we trust and feel genuine compassion for.

But though McConaughey’s performance is attention-grabbing, it’s the astonishing Tye Sheridan that deserves the most acclaim.  Though only 14 or 15 when the film was shot he effortlessly carries much of the emotional weight of the film.  He’s fresh from working on Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, an experience that has apparently given him outstanding emotive skills.  Ultimately, Mud isn’t a film about a fugitive on the run, but about a boy trying to make sense of the gap between the reality and fantasy of romance.  For the film to succeed we have to be emotionally engaged with Ellis every step along the way, Sheridan unshowily and effortlessly achieves this.  Ellis is slightly introverted, but his experiences are so universal that we always know almost exactly what’s going through his mind.  But it’s when Ellis snaps when see just how utterly fearless and instinctively natural a performer  he is.  He’s a brilliant young actor, if he can pull of a performance this mature at 15 then I can’t wait to see what he can do when he gets older.

Juniper (Reece Witherspoon)
There isn’t a weak link in this cast, every actor injects their character with a ton of humanity..  The other stand-outs are Jacob Loffland as Neckbone, Ellis’ friend - another amazing young actor - and Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship, a neighbour with a mysterious past.  Also great are Reese Witherspoon and Michael Shannon, although its here that the film runs into its first hurdle.  Both Witherspoon and Shannon quickly create compelling characters, but they’re not given room to breath, remaining sketches rather than fully realised.

In the all-too-brief scenes she has, Witherspoon’s Juniper is a perfectly pitched cocktail of compassion and cruelty; she’s a mystery that the film devotes a lot of time to unravelling.  Unfortunately she (and unfortunately this applies to all the women in the film) never quite coalesces into a character in her own right. Juniper spends nearly all of her scenes confined to a hotel room; a character wholly defined by her relationship with Mud, meaning she’s more of a plot device than a person.  It’s a real shame, because what we do see of Witherspoon’s performance is pretty electric stuff.  Also criminally under-used is Michael Shannon as Neckbone’s uncle Galen.  He exists on the periphery of the action, never quite managing to involve himself in the narrative.  It’s a bit of a waste of a damn fine actor.

Another factor that makes this film hard to criticise too fiercely is the sheer beauty of the world Nichols creates.  It’s a run-down and dirty world, yet one that’s a feast for the eyes.  It reminded me quite a bit of a less apocalyptic Beasts of the Southern Wild, the two have a similar preoccupation with water, and with making every environment believably lived in and intelligently put together.  Additionally the film seems consciously dislocated in time, these events could plausibly take place anytime between 1960 and now.  There is a calendar that dates the events to the film as post-2011, but nobody uses mobile phones or computers and all the TVs are all beaten up clunky CRT sets.  It adds up to a ramshackle aesthetic that serves the film well.  In the Q&A after the film, Jeff Nichols explained us that he was trying to immortalise something that’s in danger of being obliterated by the march of progress.  He’s succeeded.  The world of Mud is both alien and familiar, an exciting and slightly unsettling combination.

So why can’t I recommend Mud?  Well, despite all the obvious intelligence that’s gone into every aspect of the production, the result is, to be blunt, kind of dull.  It’s 130 minutes, yet feels far longer, the pace of the film emulating the lazy flow of the river that the action takes place around.  The film takes its time to an frustrating degree, at times the narrative slows down to an absolute crawl.  There’s a slightly Malick-esque feel to the stately pace, the scenes intercut with shots of the river glistening, or the sun setting behind the buildings.  But whereas Malick uses a ponderous pace to underline the spirituality of his films, Nichols just achieves a vague boredom.

I’m fully prepared to watch a film where not much happens - I enjoyed Jeanne Dielman for example - but there’s a difference between an interesting nothing and a boring nothing.  I think the tedium in Mud is partly a symptom of the fact that apart from the two boys, nearly all of the other characters are rooted to one location by plot constraints.  Mud can’t leave his island, Juniper can’t leave her motel room and so on.  This, coupled with the long run-time, saps the film of dynamism, and even when the stakes get higher and danger is close there’s still not much excitement to be head.

So this is a difficult one to rate.  The languorous pace might suit some people down to the ground, but for me it drained much of the enjoyment from the film.  As it dragged on I found myself increasingly checking my watch to see how long was left and shifting in my seat to escape a numb arse.  As I said at the beginning of this review, there’s much to admire in Mud, but to be honest I didn’t particularly enjoy watching it.


‘Mud’ is on general release from May 10.  Thanks to Total Film and the Covent Garden Hotel for the screening.

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