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Mud (2013)

Murky's Law

Mud is the Dallas Buyers Club of the first half of 2013: both star Matthew McConaughey; both have an interesting premise; and both are primarily showcases for great acting, rather than consistently engaging storytelling. Had I seen writer/director Jeff Nichols' Fractured Fairy Tales version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I was thirteen, it might have been the best, most profound movie ever. As it stands, I began to question the overall substance of this terrific performance piece ten minutes after the credits rolled.

That's a harsher critique than I'd meant it to be, but the film so recklessly misses the "classic" mark that I felt personally wounded by its shortcomings. Tye Sheridan stars as Ellis, a young Arkansas teen who spends his days exploring the Mississippi River with his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). One day, they discover a boat lodged high up in a tree, which is inhabited by a mysterious drifter named Mud (McConaughey). He's hiding from the family of a man he murdered to protect the honor of on-again-off-again girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon)--whom he hopes to smuggle out of town if he can get the boat out of the tree and fixed up.

Shadowing Juniper, now holed up in a motel, is Carver (Paul Sparks), the abusive, maniacal brother of the man Mud killed. Carver is soon joined by his father, King (Joe Don Baker), who recruits a team of local thugs and corrupt cops to help track down and kill the guy who messed with his family. Ellis and Neckbone soon find themselves ducking dangerous men, but acting as carrier pigeons between two doomed lovers.

Unfortunately for Ellis, this isn't the only high-stakes drama he's embroiled in this summer: his parents are getting divorced (leaving their waterfront home up for grabs by the state); the girl he likes (Bonnie Sturdivant) is older and hangs with a crowd of vacuous losers (traits that Ellis refuses to believe could ever shade her character); and the cranky, old recluse across the river (Sam Shepard) is on to his and Neckbone's clandestine missions to and from Mud's hideout.

Nichols sets up all of these story arcs beautifully. Most of Mud plays as an honest coming-of-age story, fronted by remarkable young actors who capture the once-in-a-lifetime mixture of bravado and timidity that comes with glimpsing all the danger and opportunity the world has to offer. Ellis' disillusionment with his parents (the spectacular Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon in two of the year's most wounded, complex performances) would have been meaty enough to sustain its own feature--and perhaps it should have been allowed to.

The problem with Nichols' overall story is that Mud's is paper-thin. Sure, he goes to great lengths to imply that characters aren't who they seem, or that there's a big secret we aren't privy to. But long before the credits roll, it becomes clear that Juniper is just a lousy girlfriend, and Mud is nothing more than a deluded, pussy-whipped, perpetual rebound. Speaking of deluded, there are some nice touches, here and there, where Ellis' fragile ideas about relationships get battered about by his problems with his parents, with his would-be girlfriend, and with the tension between Juniper and Mud. It's a miracle this kid wants anything to do with anyone by film's end.

The divorce stuff, as I mentioned, is heartfelt and terrific. But the revenge plot goes nowhere. We're told that King is "the devil himself", but as far as I could tell, all Baker did in the film was show up, lead a twisted group prayer, and answer a telephone. He and his (living) son are so unnecessarily trumped up that I felt Nichols somehow didn't trust Ellis' struggles to hold everything together.

Luckily, the movie looks great and conveys the genuine, hazy wonder of childhood summer afternoons. When I was busy not being engaged by Mud and Juniper's story, my heart wandered off down the road to where the cool kids were hanging out. Nichols creates such an immersive world that it's unfortunate we don't get to spend much time focused on the really interesting parts.

Let me be clear: my issue is strictly with the screenplay. Witherspoon and McConaughey do great things with their loosely defined roles. They may, in fact, even be culpable in making us believe there's more to these characters than we have a right to expect. In the end, Mud feels like an edgy adaptation of a really smart young-adult novel, one that adults can appreciate as a solid bridge between simple storytelling and harder to grasp themes--but it's a bridge, nonetheless. I've seen Ellis' home life struggles in movies before, and I've seen plenty of shifty-character dramas, too. Nichols relies a bit too heavily on what he may believe is the novelty of this marriage, and forgets to give veteran film lovers more to chew on.