Day 201: Mud

"You can call me a hobo, 'cause I'll do work. You can call me homeless, 'cause right now that's true. But if you call me a bum one more time, I'm gonna teach you a lesson in respect your daddy never did."

Writer/director Jeff Nichols created one of the more interesting films of the last few years with 2011's Take Shelter. As a matter of fact, now that David Gordon Green has moved on to almost exclusively direct stoner comedies these days, Nichols has become the premiere Southern gothic filmmaker. His latest film Mud, in addition to being his best film yet, continues the year long winning streak of its star Matthew McConaughey, that started with last year's Bernie. So why & how is it his best film yet? Read on to find out...

Fourteen year olds Ellis (Tye Sheridan) & Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) live along a river in rural Arkansas, and on a small inlet, they discover a boat up in a tree, carried there by the most recent flood. After deciding to claim it as a hideout or fort for themselves, they discover a mysterious drifter named Mud (McConaughey) has been hiding out in the abandoned boat. Mud is in some trouble with the law, and is waiting for his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to join him on the island so they can escape together.

Ellis is going through turmoil at home, with his parents splitting up, and is immediately taken by Mud, because he seems to be motivated by that most wonderful ideal to any fourteen year old boy, true love. He & Neck begin recruiting supplies to try and help Mud get the boat out of the tree, but when a series of bounty hunters show up in the small town looking for Mud, the clock begins to tick.

First things first, this film is the kind of slow burn character film that just isn't made that much anymore, certainly not by major studios. Though McConaughey gets top billing, young Tye Sheridan is arguably the star of the film, and that's another risk you don't see being taken often enough. It pays off incredibly well because both Sheridan & Lofland have a preternatural ease on screen, and their scenes together are some of the best in the entire film. The film is also populated with a ton of great character actors in small roles including Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker & Sarah Paulson.

In fact, in any other film, I would be sad to see such great talent relegated to such small roles, but these two boys are so fantastic, you never seem to mind that the big names are barely on screen. As the title character, McConaughey shines, making you believe he's got the kind of sordid past his character requires. In fact, I would use his co-star Witherspoon as a great counterpoint example. Witherspoon looks like a beautiful, Hollywood star acting like she's slumming. McConaughey is so at ease in the skin of this drifter, it never feels like he's acting. He clearly took a ton of inspiration from Robert Mitchum's brilliant performance in Night of the Hunter, and these two films would make a fantastic double feature.

Nichols' screenplay is wonderfully sparse, filled with just enough dialogue to help build character, but never feel too talky. Nichols creates wonderful mood, atmosphere & tension naturally, without ever feeling forced. The film builds and builds, and while the climax tended a bit toward the ridiculous, the film's denouement was much better than the one found in Take Shelter. I got worried he was going to fail to stick the landing once again, but the final two scenes of this film are wonderful.

While I think this is a film that can be enjoyed by just about everyone, I think that anyone who's ever been a forlorn & love sick fourteen year old boy will connect with this film in a very visceral way. Ellis' journey through the phases of love, both with what he experiences personally and what he sees happening around him, is so wonderfully realized. The film is never cynical about love, but keeps it at an appropriately aesthetic arms' length, and therefore keeps it feeling solidly real. And Michael Shannon's brilliant monologue & deconstruction of the meaning of The Beach Boys' "Help Me, Rhonda" is worth the price of admission alone.

While I've been hesitant in my recommendations for both Trance & Lords of Salem, I would wholeheartedly recommend Mud for just about anyone. Every audience member will connect with it differently, but it's a fantastic character study & slow burning thriller. It's the kind of movie you keep saying that they don't make much anymore, but thankfully, they do and they did. Go see Mud, you truly won't regret it.

GO Rating: 4/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]