Tuesday, April 23, 2013

MUD is Jeff Nichols' best -- a story of love (many kinds) featuring a terrific ensemble

MUD sneaks up on you: A compilation of smart, real moments that turn into impressive scenes, with characters that expand and grow into full-bodied people who delight, alarm and surprise you. Somewhere along the way, you'll also realize that there has not been a false moment on view and that, yes, this movie may be something quite special. Mud does not disappoint.

What surprised TrustMovies most -- after seeing Nichols' other films: Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, which were interesting but appeared too deliberately diffuse and, in the case of the latter, with-holding -- is how straight-ahead and on-track Nichols (shown at left) keeps his tale, without ever making it simple-minded. The filmmaker's command of his material has taken a huge leap, while the material itself has grown in scope and importance. The year is young, but I will not be at all surprised to find this movie on a number of "Best" lists, come late December. So accessible and moving is Mud that great word-of-mouth could easily take this independent film into mainstream territory.

Nichols' setting is again the south, but his ensemble has increased noticeably, beginning with the two mid-teenage boys who ground the movie and their introduction to the title character, played -- in yet another smashingly good performance -- by Matthew McConaughey (above). Last year this actor kept surprising us over and over -- Bernie, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, The Paperboy -- and this year looks to be no different. McConaughey appears to have found his muse, his pace, his place; his performance here is rich, moving, sometimes funny and always real.

The movie combines the coming-of-age theme with a great love story. But not just a love story. No: Mud lets us view love in so many forms in all kinds of ways: man/woman, boy/girl, father/son, mother/son, mentor/student -- and especially of the unrequited variety. Because Nichols and his cast have found a way to make all these loves meaningful and important -- even the chief villain (a nice turn by the seldom-seen Joe Don Baker) and his love for his sons is allowed a bit of our sympathy and understanding -- the movie never stops resonating.

As the love object that sets the plot in motion, Reese Witherspoon is initially almost unrecognizable. She's excellent, as usual, in a role that's unusual for this actress. (In fact, her character seems not far out of line with Witherspoon's recent altercation vis-a-vis the Atlanta police department.)

The filmmaker has always been adept at getting his cast to deliver fine performances, and his work with the two boys to whom the film most belongs is sterling. As Ellis, the boy we learn most about, Tye Sheridan (above, left, and below) is as memorable here as he was not so in the diddling Tree of Life. Ditto Jacob Lofland (above, right), in his debut as Neckbone, a boy we learn less about but for whom the actor does wonderful, moment-to-moment work. These are the best performances by kids that I have seen in a long while.

In the supporting cast are a number of fine actors, beginning with Nichols' regular Michael Shannon, who plays Neckbone's deep-river diving uncle, a character who, the first time we see him after a sexual contretemps, appears to be rather a schmuck. Again, Nichols and his actor gives us enough layers of behavior and caring that we're soon on this guy's side.

Ellis' parents, struggling and angry, are played by Sarah Paulson (above) and Ray McKinnon (below), both of whom are splendid, adding yet another difficult and important love story to the mix.

In the role of Mud's mentor, Sam Shepard (below) brings his usual gravity and low-keyed wit to the proceedings. Love, betrayal, revenge, understanding -- they're all here and mixed to precisely the right degree to approximate life in its complexity. Mud, my movie-loving friends, is a must-see.

The film, from both Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions and running 130 minutes (it seems shorter), opens this Friday, April 26, in New York City (at AMC's Lincoln Square 13 and Village VII, and at Clearview's 1st & 62nd) -- and elsewhere, I'm sure, though I can find no listing of playdates currently.

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