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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

We’ll bring it out on March 25 and we’ll call it… Christmas II!

Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
(SPOILERS) Alexander Salkind (alongside son Ilya) inhabited not dissimilar territory to the more prolific Dino De Laurentis, in that his idea of manufacturing a huge blockbuster appeared to be throwing money at it while being stingy with, or failing to appreciate, talent where it counted. Failing to understand the essential ingredients for a quality movie, basically, something various Hollywood moguls of the ‘80s would inherit. Santa Claus: The Movie arrived in the wake of his previously colon-ed big hit, Superman: The Movie, the producer apparently operating under the delusion that flying effects and :The Movie in the title would induce audiences to part with their cash, as if they awarded Saint Nick a must-see superhero mantle. The only surprise was that his final cinematic effort, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, wasn’t similarly sold, but maybe he’d learned his lesson by then. Or maybe not, given the behind-camera talent he failed to secure.

It's their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can't eat scenery!

Local Hero (1983)
(SPOILERS) With the space of thirty-five years, Bill Forsyth’s gentle eco-parable feels more seductive than ever. Whimsical is a word often applied to Local Hero, but one shouldn’t mistake that description for its being soft in the head, excessively sentimental or nostalgic. Tonally, in terms of painting a Scottish idyll where the locals are no slouches in the face of more cultured foreigners, the film hearkens to both Powell and Pressburger (I Know Where I’m Going!) and Ealing (Whisky Galore!), but it is very much its own beast.

On a long enough timeline, the survival of everyone drops to zero.

Fight Club (1999)
(SPOILERS) Still David Fincher’s peak picture, mostly by dint of Fight Club being the only one you can point to and convincingly argue that that the source material is up there with his visual and technical versatility. If Seven is a satisfying little serial-killer-with-a-twist story vastly improved by his involvement (just imagine it directed by Joel Schumacher… or watch 8mm), Fight Club invites him to utilise every trick in the book to tell the story of not-Tyler Durden, whom we encounter at a very peculiar time in his life.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.