Priums song out of my head...
I love Jeff Nichols. Take Shelter was one of my favorite films from 2011, and if you haven't seen it, I strongly recommend seeing it as soon as possible. Take Shelter starred the always awesome Michael Shannon, so I was excited to see that Mud also featured him. Unfortunately, while his scenes are noteworthy, Shannon fans are going to leave disappointed, as he has a very small role and is really in only two or three scenes in the whole movie.
Instead, Mud focuses on Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Seriously, is there a better name than 'Neckbone'? They venture out in their spare time to recover a boat that has been stranded in a tree after a flood. Right away, you get a very Stand By Me vibe from the film, both in the look of the duo, as well as their motivation. Upon finding the boat, they find that someone's been living in it. They meet the inhabitant, who simply goes by Primus, eh...I mean "Mud" (Matthew McConaughey). Mud has an almost ghostlike appearance seemingly appearing and disappearing instantly. He's a mysterious guy and all, and there's dark past that is later revealed.
The boys and Mud bond, and learn that he's waiting for an old love of his, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to meet him. The boys see an attractive girl arrive in town and figure that it's Juniper. They agree to help Mud, setting things in motion.
One of the things the really struck me about Mud was the overall look of the film. You get such a view of the town that you really feel like you're part of it, and you're almost depressed by it. The town and houses they lived in were so run down that I couldn't imagine why anyone would want to live there, yet they have a pride in it. This is another movie that feels like it's set in the recent past, but you really can't tell. Not that it matters, but nobody has a cell phone, or even a cordless phone in their homes. Based on the cars seen, this looks like it was set in the 80's or perhaps set in a town stuck in the 80's. This is a town where people still have names like 'Mae Pearl' (Bonnie Sturdivant).
Another thing I liked about the look is that the scenes where they visited Mud on his island, had a very bright, almost ethereal quality about it, as if the island itself was in another universe entirely. There's a coming of age aspect to the story that was very interesting to watch play out.
Matthew McConaughey continues his streak of great performances. Talk about a massive career turnaround. He went from a guy that just a few years ago was becoming a joke, to being someone that has turned in a string of great performances in smaller films, and is now someone that I look forward to seeing in anything. He continues his streak here, and there's a charm about Mud that even though you aren't sure about his true intentions, he seems like a genuine enough person that really cares for these kids.
It's another film where the kids are not a weak point either. Both Sheridan and Lofland turn in very strong performances, and the chemistry between the two is natural and funny. I mentioned Stand By Me earlier, and I even saw a little bit of River Phoenix in there. Tye Sheridan was great as Ellis! He has a good character arc, and you get a glimpse into the man he's going to become and know he's going to be okay. Sheridan is going to be one to watch in the future.
If there's any real problem with the movie, it's that it's a little too long. I know I sound like a broken record when I complain that a two hour movie is a little too long, but the issue this time is that there's a very obvious MacGuffin shown in the first act, so the whole movie you know it's coming. When it finally comes to pass, I even heard someone sitting behind me tell his date, "Tell me you didn't see that coming." When you have two-plus-hour movie, it's not the greatest thing to have such a telegraphed event in your film. It was also resolved somewhat quickly, and was kind of thrown out by the time the actual 'explosive' conclusion happened. It just pains me because this is a 5 star movie if it was about 15-20 minutes shorter.
Now despite the length, it's pacing is good. It reveals more and more about the characters gradually, and you're never disappointed as you learn more. The way the movie plays out, you're continuously invested in the characters and their stories. The supporting characters and the performances by Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon (as well as Michael Shannon) fill out the story and keep you invested even when the focus isn't on Mud or Ellis.
Mud manages to be a sweet film without being overly sappy, and is easily one of the best films I've seen in 2013 so far. Bolstered by strong performances from Matthew McConaughey (did I just say that...again) and Tye Sheridan, it's a movie that has a strong coming of age story that still feels like an authentic slice of the South. Jeff Nichols continues to be one of the best directors the mainstream hasn't heard of, but that isn't going to be the case if he keeps making great movies like this. If you're looking for something as an alternative to the explosive, superhero action of Iron Man 3 this weekend, then this is your best bet.
4 (out of 5) Death Stars