It dawned on me the other day that I had never blogged about what has been my favorite movie so far in 2013. It’s been an uneven year for movies this year –this summer has been particularly disappointing as many blockbusters have been unable to live up to their own hype or franchises are beginning to show their age, to say nothing of the wasteland that is late January into early February when major studies dump all the movies that they know are crap. There have been some bright spots of course – This is The End was a pleasant surprise and I enjoyed The Conjuring and Much Ado About Nothing – but overall I’ve been more disappointed than impressed with what has been released in 2013. When Fast & Furious 6 is one of the movies that you enjoyed the most, you KNOW it is a bad year.
This is not to take away from how much I enjoyed the small independent film Mud, which was released this spring and came out on DVD and Blu-Ray this week. Just because the competition it was up against was weaker than most shouldn’t be an indication that I “settled” with Mud for my favorite film of the year to date. It is such a well done and engaging coming of age story that I’d like to think that it would be amongst my favorites any year.
Mud is the tale of two teenage boys (Ellis and Neckbone) living in the Southern Delta. On a small island in the Mississippi River, the two boys discover a boat that has been trapped in a tree after a flood. They decide to claim the boat as their own, but when they return to claim it they are startled to find a mysterious stranger named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has moved into it. The boys are both wary and fascinated by Mud, who claims to be hiding out on the island waiting for his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to arrive. The boys discover that Mud is a fugitive from the law, but Ellis, the more sensitive of the two boys, decides that he still wants to help reunite Mud with his lady love, even if it puts Ellis in harm’s way. It’s all beautifully acted and filmed; the film does an amazing job of consistently telling the story from the point of view of Ellis, who is the real heart of the movie. Many coming of age stories are tainted by switching over to the lens of adults, but Mud’s perspective is firmly that of this boy becoming a man and all the baggage and confusion that comes along with it.
This is in no means hyperbole: Mud is the role that Matthew McConaughey was born to play. He is a revelation as this character; if I was asked to design a dream role for McConaughey, I don’t think I could come up with anything much better than Mud. The character is odd and grimy and could be confused with something of a prophet, but he is also extremely vulnerable and has an inherent sadness that percolates just below the surface. It has been such a pleasure to watch McConaughey have something of a career resurgence in the last year; finally freed from the purgatory of starring in romantic comedies with Kate Hudson, McConaughey has been able to strut his stuff as one of the best working character actors with stellar performances in Bernie, Magic Mike and Killer Joe. He was one of the most interesting things to watch in the otherwise fairly disastrous The Paperboy. It’s been so enjoyable to see him finally living up to the potential that I saw in Dazed and Confused. As great as he is in all of these movies, Mud should be the performance that he should be remembered for. He is mesmerizing as the drifter and in his capable hands there is a lot of nuance with the character. It’s a shame that this was an independent film that many people didn’t see; watching McConaughey shine is reason enough to go see this movie.
The young actors that play Ellis and Neckbone are also fantastic; they are good not only by child actor standards, but by any standard. As Ellis, Tye Sheridan does more of the heavy lifting of the two and is really the heart and soul of this film. The title may be Mud, but this is Ellis’ story as he struggles with domestic strife, first love and a threat to his entire way of life and identity. Ellis is learning to maneuver in an adult world, with all its complications, half-truths and lies. Ellis has a pure heart and he struggles to make sense of what his world has become; it is no surprise that he is drawn to the romanticism of Mud’s story, even if things are not always as black and white as they seem. As Neckbone, Jacob Lofland is the more cynical and street smart of the two; he has his doubts about Mud’s story and whether they should be helping him, but he would never abandon Ellis. Lofland has some nice comedic moments, but he is really a supporting character to Ellis.
The story is beautifully told and the cinematography is luscious; I’ve never been to the Mississippi Delta, but I feel like I have because of how this film was shot. The camera really is an additional way to solidify telling this story from Ellis’ point of view; it lingers on the popular kids horsing around at the local fast food establishment as this is something that Ellis would notice as they ride through town. The story was told with efficiency but thoroughly and while there were plenty of twists and turns they felt organic rather than forced as plot devices. Mud felt very real and identifiable; these weren’t characters, but real people.
Some other quick thoughts:
- Reese Witherspoon has a fairly small part as Juniper, but she makes the most of it. I was surprised to see an actress of her stature in such a minor role, but she probably saw the quality of this film and wanted to be a part of it. It’s lucky that she was such a small part, since this film was released about the time that she became an expert on American citizenry.
- Also with a minor role is the great Michael Shannon, who plays Neckbone’s uncle and guardian. After seeing him play either menacing or troubled characters, it was kind of refreshing to see Shannon play a guy who’s pretty relaxed and isn’t looking to kill someone or struggling with possible mental illness. In Mud, he’s just happy to score with the ladies and go diving for oysters. This film reteams him with director Jeff Nichols, who he worked with previously in Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter.
- The streak continues in Mud – McConaughey appears shirtless on multiple occasions.
- It’s always good to see some Deadwood alumni turn up – Ray McKinnon and Sara Paulson are great as Ellis’ parents.
There’s really not much more to say; I simply was enchanted with this movie. This is McConaughey’s best work to date and it is a great introduction to two young actors that can more than hold their own with their adult co-stars. Mud id a beautiful and compelling coming of age story mixed in with a little bit of mystery and suspense. It’s still early, but right now Mud is the early leader for my favorite film of 2013. Definitely check this film out.