Monday, May 6, 2013

Mud ***

Mud combines elements of Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer, family melodrama, and Southern epic.  There's quite a bit going on in this one.  Matthew McConaughey stars as Mud who lives in self-exposed exile on an island on the Mississippi River.  Two boys, the central figures in the film, befriend him in the midst of their own family struggles.

Setting is a strong character in an environment divided between townies and the fisherman. It's a rough country in an economically stagnant region.  Water is a used as a metaphor throughout as a life giving force, but one also showing the unpredictability of life - something both beautiful and terrifying.

Mud is also a study of masculinity in the South.  Mud, whom the boys (Ellis and Kyle) come to idolize, is like a folk- hero in an old ballad, the non-conformist.  He claims he's staying on the island for the woman he loves (Reese Witherspoon), but as they learn Mud has complex motives behind all his decisions.  Ellis's father (Ray McKinoon) is simple and hardworking, and a believer in tough love who carries himself with quiet dignity. Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), a mysterious neighbor, is yet another loner with a mysterious past ( hard not not think of Chuck Yeagar).  Ellis's friend Kyle is being raised by an uncle in arrested development.

My description may sound like Mud is a character study, and on some level it is, yet it's also heavy on plot and melodrama.

The female roles in Mud are less defined.  Juniper is never quite defined and Witherspoon is underused.  Mud stays committed to her, despite the turbulent nature of their relationship.  Ellis's mother leaves his father and he resents her for it.  His crush, a local townie, leaves him in the cold.  As I mentioned above, Mud is about men and how they react to crisis.

Matthew McConaughey performance is pitch perfect as the outsider with his own sense of honor.  Jeff Nichols, the director, has set his two previous films in the South as well, Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011) which also place family and loyalty front and center.  There's a mix of melancholy hope running throughout the film, although the ending feels inevitable and forced.  Overall, Mud is a crowd pleaser  amidst the usual run of summer blockbusters.

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