Saturday, May 4, 2013

Mud (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


From the punchy director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) comes a riveting man-on the-run tale that combines the hard bitten grit of "Winter's Bone" with the adolescent bonding of Huckleberry Finn or Rob Reiner's "Stand By Me" (1986).

"Mud" is the story of Arkansas River boys Ellis, earthily played by Tye Sheridan (Tree of Life) and Neckbone, expressed by Jacob Lofland in a debut performance, who stumble upon an enigmatic stranger named Mud (Matthew McConaughey). The kids are driven by romantic escapism and spy a boat on an island. Little do they know the boat is inhabited by a grungy scofflaw resembling a blonde rattlesnake with a dissipating smile.

Ellis, troubled by the threat of his parents divorce, latches onto Mud, who embodies a freedom and self reliance. Squinty-eyed Neckbone doesn't trust the guy but is intrigued by his spirit, plus the kids want the boat. They proceed to make a deal with Mud to exchange the boat for food.

Back at home Ellis' father is foul tempered and fuming battling against wife and mother (Sarah Paulson). After one bit of domestic strife, the father (Ray McKinnon) tells Ellis  that love never works. While Mud confesses that he is a lover in exile, driven to solitude by trying to protect his lost love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud admits that he did kill a man, but that it was essentially a matter of honor and self protection, given that the shadowy man was something of "Old Scratch" (i.e. the devil). As his family crumbles, Ellis  idealizes the concept of love. Near a shopping center he sees a girl being violently harassed and socks the belligerent senior in the face.

As he does these acts, he feels a sense of righteousness combined with an identification with Mud, with all of his intense vocabulary of luck charms, devils, snakes and worlds reformed by kisses.

Although Ellis is a mere child, he has something of Scorcese's Travis Bickle in him. At the sight of a woman under threat, a button is pushed, and off he goes. While watching Juniper being hit by the heavy Carver (Paul Sparks) Ellis again gets socked in the nose. More closely, though, Ellis is a kind of voyeur and has a bit in common with the snooping Jeffrey in "Blue Velvet". Like Jeffrey, Ellis is intrigued by danger and identifies with the archetype of the woman (or man) in trouble, confined by a hermetic community.

Elements of this story have been done before, of young ones bewitched by the spell of the strange man or outlaw, but McConaughey is so twitchy and sly here, (complete with a cheesecloth shirt that he sheds like snakeskin)  that he never bores. Fortunately he is also loon-hearted with a soul full of slugs and his role never drifts into the sinkhole of cliche cartoons. The iconic actor has a real texture in this film that he lacks in so many other roles.

The climax alone has real anxiety that recalls all the heart-stopping seconds of films like "True Grit" or "Unforgiven".

For those who want a kind of Southern Gothic Mark Twain yarn with some old Western trappings of revenge---all bound up and tied in adolescence, the understatedly-titled film "Mud" more than delivers.

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