3.5 Stars
Year Released: 2012
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 130 minutes
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This review was originally published on January 21, 2013…

Like Take Shelter before it, Mud confirms Jeff Nichols’ status as a rising talent in the world of independent film who’s yet to make a truly major work. It also confirms that Matthew McConaughey may well be his artistic peak right now, here playing the eponymous vagrant whom we meet cooling his spurs on a small island in the Mississippi before recruiting the help of two youths hoping to trade for the boat he lives in (which happens to be stuck atop a tree). Mud is introduced as a seemingly mystical figure whose sordid backstory gradually deconstructs his aura and brings him back down to the harsh reality he’s created for himself.

Nichols evokes his setting of rural Arkansas (and, more broadly, the South in general) in a much more evenhanded fashion than most. Our fourteen-year-old protagonist lives with his parents in a floating house on the river, but neither their relative poverty nor their site-specific accents and mannerisms are overemphasized—ditto the rest of the cast. (Here, too, the film draws favorable comparisons to Take Shelter, which was equally kind to its Midwestern characters.) But the spark of something more, even something ethereal, that Mud hints at early on never quite materializes. The result is consistently engaging but, save for a few inspired moments near the end, seldom as captivating as it clearly has the potential to be; at certain points one even wishes that Nichols would loosen his steady grip over the proceedings and let things go wild for a short while.

Too, the story he spends most of the time telling is decidedly more convoluted than the one he seemingly wants to focus on, with a script that’s less muscular than the writer-director has already proven he’s capable of. When the plotting lags, the film survives largely as an actors’ showcase: not only McConaughey but also The Tree of Life‘s Tye Sheridan, Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon from Deadwood, Sam Shepard, and Reese Witherspoon. (Nichols also made the wise decision of casting frequent collaborator Michael Shannon as the level-headed comic relief rather than the unstable personality he more often portrays.) To follow such an ambitious (and acclaimed) film as Take Shelter with what’s essentially a coming-of-age story told from the perspective of a doe-eyed adolescent is ultimately a bold move in and of itself, even if it doesn’t represent as large a step forward as it could have.

Posted on March 10, 2013 in Reviews by

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