Review: Mud (2013)

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Directed by – Jeff Nichols
Written by – Jeff Nichols
Starring – Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson & Michael Shannon

2013 has been a great year for the ever-reliable “coming-of-age” genre, with films such as Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Selfish Giant and The Kings of Summer (to name but a few) opening to near universal acclaim. It’s a modern genre that has always struck a chord, particularly with those of my generation for whom classics like The Breakfast Club – though its message is timeless – can feel a bit dated. Yet in a year brimming with top quality COA films, is there a place for Jeff Nichols’ (director of Take Shelter) Mud?

Thankfully, the answer to that question is a resounding “fuck yeah!” Mud joins the ranks of darker, less comic COA films (such as Girl, Interrupted and Mysterious Skin) in that it focuses on its two main characters getting into trouble with the law and aiding and abetting a con. Set in backwater Arkansas, the film tells the tale of two teenagers, Ellis (Sheridan; The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (Lofland, in his first feature performance) who stumble across a strange man called Mud while playing on an island. Over the course of the next few days, the boys become close to Mud and agree to help him escape from the law with the love of his life Juniper (Witherspoon; Walk the Line, Election) while both of them attempt to juggle the issues already threatening to bring down their own families.

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Mud is a seductive little film that sucks you in and refuses to let you go. The gorgeous cinematography grabs a hold of its audience from the beginning and though the plot takes a while to get going, once it does it is both thrilling and heart-warming. The themes it deals with are universal and will appeal to all audiences; it’s all about the breakdown of relationships across the generations, about the power of friendship and family and how to deal with the consequences of what happens when all of these things start to fall apart. The themes are timeless and we’ve seen them all before, so it’s a real treat to see them handled in such a beautiful and engaging way. Unlike lots of COA films, it avoids falling into mawkishness; Mud is heartfelt and full of warmth but it never sacrifices the natural grit of its story in order to be so.

The obvious strength of the film rests with the two main characters, with whom we spend much of our time. Nichols’ skills as a writer are already well-established, but he takes things to another level with his characterisation of the two teenagers who become caught up in the action. Ellis in particular will be recognisable to anyone who has ever fallen in love, anyone who has ever seen his/her family torn apart and anyone who has ever wanted to break free from a mundane existence. He’s a fantastic character and his deep friendship with Neckbone feels genuine and raw. Sheridan and Lofland are superb in their respective roles, especially once the drama is cranked up in the final act. Their camaraderie with Mud is sweet and entertaining, while the manner in which the two characters juggle their own personal issues with their desire to help Mud awards the film an additional layer of believability. If Mud has achieved anything, it’s thrown two excellent actors into the limelight and hopefully given them both a great career to look forward to.

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Furthermore, in the last few years it seems that Matthew McConaughey has finally rediscovered  his calling. After fantastic turns in Killer Joe, Magic Mike and even The Paperboy, which have all but undone his undeserved reputation as a hack, the man who once made me want to gouge my own eyes out in films like Sahara and Fool’s Gold delivers his greatest performance yet as title character Mud. He manages to turn the mysterious and untrustworthy Mud into a complex but likable character with a performance that is both intense and subdued. He never overplays the role, instead relying on the solid writing to maintain an air of mystery to his character’s motives and background. The Southern drawl feels natural (I often find pronunciation of that kind quite forced in cinema) and McConaughey oozes a presence that is powerful, full of anguish and yet curiously moving.

After a slow start I was beginning to worry but once the characters and the story are properly established, Mud is an absolute joy to watch. The final act is all but perfect as each strand of the story is brought together and resolved (or purposefully left open, but the decision to keep things open never feels lazy), and as all of the themes are brought into focus. There are areas in which the film suffers somewhat (the villains, for example, are a bit one-dimensional) but these fade into the background against such marvellous performances and a truly engrossing story. If you enjoy your COA films dark, and with an emotional punch, you must give Mud a go. And even if it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, it’s still worth watching just to see the continual evolution of Matthew McConaughey from laughable hack to damn fine actor in his best performance to date.

★★★★

Review also posted on Letterboxd

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