Skip to main content

There are things you can get away with in this world and then there are things you can’t.


Mud
(2012)

(MINOR SPOILERS) Matthew McConaughey’s screen rebirth continues apace in this engaging, consummately scripted slow-burn thriller from Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter). Mud finds two young protagonists in a scenario that invokes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But Nichols isn’t interested in merely making a straightforward boys’ adventure yarn; his is a rites of passage tale, one where the first stirrings of young love must vie with the harsh realisation that mutual affection may not endure. It’s a theme that reverberates through his characters, both young and old.


Nichols allows his narrative to unfold at a languorous pace, and the Southern backdrop sometimes recalls the work of John Dahl or Carl Franklin. But he is aiming for something less defined and more poetic than in their noirish visions, both visually and in his characters’ lyrical language. In particular, McConaughey’s Mud has a frazzled, almost biblical grandeur to his speech, superstitions, and wisdom. Nichols encourages this mythic quality. The two boys live fractured, dysfunctional lives; since there is no domestic bliss to return to Mud represents an escape, an adventure.


At the same time, Ellis’ (a very fine performance from Tye Sheridan, who made his debut in Tree of Life) experiences and travails compare and contrast to Mud’s own paradigm. We aren’t sure at various points if Mud is delusional, a benign fantasist, or harbours dangerous secrets. But it is Ellis rather than his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who feels the tug to aid Mud; even more so when he discovers that Mud is a fugitive from justice, for a reason he can relate to; idealised love (it’s amusing to see the less insightful Neckbone offer his services in exchange for an impressionable teen’s prize; a real gun). Ellis’ parents are in the process of separating, while Ellis himself is experiencing his own feelings for a girl a few years older than him (whom he believes reciprocates).


Mud has arrived in his spot of bother due to a yen for Juniper (Reece Witherspoon), a girl whom he has lived for since he was younger than Ellis. Much of Mud’s subtext relates to the contrast between the various shades of jadedness, bitterness or disinterest shown by adults towards love, be it Ellis’ dad Senior (Ray Mckinnon), hermit neighbour Tom (Sam Shephard) or Neckbone’s uncle Galen (Michael Shannon). Mud may be delusional, but there is purity to his vision, a quality that captures Ellis’ imagination and swelling heart. It may not be realistic, but along side the dark manifestations of Mud’s infatuation there is an untainted spirit (one that has not yet been crushed beneath the weight of adulthood; Nichols seems to be saying that there is a place for heady dreams; it is best not to die inside).


However, Nichols offers parallels between Ellis and Mud that are occasionally a little on the nose. At times the symbolism is overt; the foreshadowing of Mud’s warnings concerning snakes culminates in his inevitable redemptive act. You can see what Nichols is doing; Ellis might be poised to repeat the fringe existence of Mud, disaffected and out-of-touch, unhealthily fixated on the object of his affection and mistaking acts of violence as declarations of love. But, in the final frame, he is enabled to move on, at a pace 30 years faster than the man he idolises. Because Nichols doesn’t take expected route he keeps the movie surprising and, because we are expecting Mud, whom we quickly grow to like, to meet a sticky end at the hands of the family of the man he murdered, there is an underlying tension even during the most beatific scenes. Ultimately, it is a surprise and a reward that the picture ends on an upbeat note.


The climax caught me off guard, I admit. Although Nichols is careful to set up certain characters, such as Tom, with a view to what transpires, there is nevertheless a standard-issue quality to the set piece staging and fireworks that feels like it has come from another, less aching and measured, movie. I wouldn’t say it disappointed me, as I can see thematically that Nichols has themes to explore concerning the importance of moving on, young or old, once has awoken to reality. But the tone had led me to expect a downbeat, reflective final note.


McConaughey isn’t a transformative actor (whatever his physical fluctuations may be, such as in the forthcoming Dallas Buyers Club); he leads with natural charisma, and any part marbles itself around that. The problem can be, and has been in the past, that this manifests as an off-putting cockiness; the kind of self-regard that has been prevalent in Tom Cruise’s career. More recently he has begun channelling his energies into really strong roles, with the result that his talent rather than his preening has started to shine through. He’s perfectly cast here (in a role Nichols earmarked for him when he conceived the story during the ‘90s), lending Mud a folksy charm that is as well intentioned as his bounty hunter in Killer Joe is poisonous.


Sam Shephard, no stranger to finely crafted material as both a screenwriter and a playwright, is legendary as the gruff but concerned Tom, while Nichols regulars McKinnon and Shannon (in a role so un-crazed it takes a moment to adjust) also make a strong impression. There are also sightings of Joe Don Baker and Boardwalk Empire’s Paul Sparks.


The problem with a movie with a male gaze is that it can look as if the director/writer is giving the female characters short shrift; the female roles are by intention refracted. Nichols is more interested in exploring the mistaken assumptions of men about women than fully fleshing out his female characters; Mud and Ellis have unrealistic expectations of Juniper and May Pearl (Bonnie Sturvidant) respectively, which need correcting (or dashing). Our sympathies initially lie with Senior when the loss of Ellis’ river life is broached, but it becomes clear that Ellis’ mother Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) needs to break from her husband’s destructive intransigence. All three actresses are strong; Witherspoon has a couple of good moments, but her presence is more about the audience seeing a “star” in the role (the way Mud sees her) than bringing substance to Juniper.


Cinematographer Adam Stone complements the already striking landscape of Arkansas (notably the island Mud inhabits) with imagery that evokes childhood’s wondering gaze, from the first sight of the boat perched in a nest of branches (a vessel that offers Mud the prospect of salvation) to Galen’s idiosyncratic submarine excursions.


Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of Mud is that realisation of a clear and distinctive voice, where a director/writer’s vision is completely realised on the screen. The film will no doubt bring to mind other coming of age dramas, just as the Southern setting, on the edge of the wilderness, has a strong familiarity. But Nichols’ story is fully formed and (aside from his intentional nod to Mark Twain) fresh. For all its rumination on unrequited love, this is a deeply romantic movie; but the romance is for place and time and mood rather than people.

**** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

One day you will speak and the jungle will listen.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)
(SPOILERS) The unloved and neglected Jungle Book movie that wasn't Disney’s, Jungle Book: Origins was originally pegged for a 2016 release, before being pushed to last year, then this, and then offloaded by Warner Bros onto Netflix. During which time the title changed to Mowgli: Tales from the Jungle Book, then Mowgli, and finally Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The assumption is usually that the loser out of vying projects – and going from competing with a near $1bn grossing box office titan to effectively straight-to-video is the definition of a loser – is by its nature inferior, but Andy Serkis' movie is a much more interesting, nuanced affair than the Disney flick, which tried to serve too many masters and floundered with a finale that saw Mowgli celebrated for scorching the jungle. And yes, it’s darker too. But not grimdarker.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

A steed is not praised for its might, but for its thoroughbred qualities.

The Avengers Season 3 Ranked - Worst to Best
Season Three is where The Avengers settles into its best-known form – okay, The Grandeur that was Rome aside, there’s nothing really pushing it towards the eccentric heights it would reach in the Rigg era – in no small part due to the permanent partnering of Honor Blackman with Patrick Macnee. It may not be as polished as the subsequent incarnations, but it has the appeal of actively exploring its boundaries, and probably edges out Season Five in the rankings, which rather started to believe its own hype.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

What about the panties?

Sliver (1993)
(SPOILERS) It must have seemed like a no-brainer. Sharon Stone, fresh from flashing her way to one of the biggest hits of 1992, starring in a movie nourished with a screenplay from the writer of one of the biggest hits of 1992. That Sliver is one Stone’s better performing movies says more about how no one took her to their bosom rather than her ability to appeal outside of working with Paul Verhoeven. Attempting to replicate the erotic lure of Basic Instinct, but without the Dutch director’s shameless revelry and unrepentant glee (and divested of Michael Douglas’ sweaters), it flounders, a stupid movie with vague pretensions to depth made even more stupid by reshoots that changed the killer’s identity and exposed the cluelessness of the studio behind it.

Philip Noyce isn’t a stupid filmmaker, of course. He’s a more-than-competent journeyman when it comes to Hollywood blockbuster fare (Clear and Present Danger, Salt) also adept at “smart” smaller pictures (Rabbit Proof Fence

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom (2018)
(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.