Mud

Mud

Postby CAP » Tue Jul 02, 2013 12:24 am

Like Silver Linings Playbook, this one starts well only to succumb to excessive plotting, laboured resolution. I give it seven. But where Silver Linings was basically an old-fashioned romance, Mud is a more troubling sub-Mark Twain tale, set in South Eastern Arkansas, (in the delta where the White River joins the Mississippi, as far as I can make out) and is partly a coming-of-age story, partly a rather sour view of love and women. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, it concerns two teenage boys that befriend a mysterious outcast, Mud (Matthew McConaughey) hiding out on a tiny deserted island in the Mississippi, living in a small boat; miraculously deposited high in a tree by a previous flood. The precarious mooring alerts us to grand forces, extreme upheavals. The boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) intend to claim the boat as their own, but on discovering its inhabitant, are soon drawn into his deadly predicament. Echoes of Tom and Huck and secret doings on the river are successfully updated, given a vivid location but the lynchpin is the haunted, tragic character of Mud and McConaughey’s brilliant performance. Who knew he had this intensity? Mud is a compelling creation, perhaps in his forties and yet curiously unworldly, superstitious. He is a drifter, a misfit, at once ingenious, experienced and yet uneducated, indifferent to society and the law.

We learn that Mud has murdered a man in Texas and is lying low. He knows this region well and is a shrewd survivor. He murdered the man to avenge terrible abuse visited upon Mud’s old flame, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) when married to the murdered man. Juniper is also damaged goods. Her tale is one of endlessly attracting Mud, only to dump him for others, then to be mistreated by them. It’s a cycle. Mud has trailed her all over the country. They can never quite keep it together. In other hands, the situation has distinct comic possibilities. The boys bring Mud food and spot Juniper from his description in the nearby town. They also discover she is being threatened by the brother of the murdered man, Carver (Paul Sparks) and relay the news. Mud is understandably disappointed. The brother will not be alone and has come to kill Mud. It’s bad enough the police are looking for him and have roadblocks all around, but the Texan family are not interested in the law, anymore than Mud. They’re into blood feuds. This is The South! These good old boys still live by the gun. Goddamn rednecks. I’m reminded of Winter’s Bone briefly, but Mud never finds that kind of ruthless focus. That’s the other side of Arkansas, in more ways than one. Anyway, Mud plans to flee using the boat, suitably extricated from the tree and restored. The boys agree to help with necessities, scrounged or pilfered. The story then gathers pace as the Texan posse closes in while Mud readies the boat. Incidentally - for film buffs - the father of the murdered man, ‘King’ Carver is played by Joe Don Baker, a famous screen villain from the 70s, in particular Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick (1973).

The boys are not Mud’s only allies though. Living on the opposite bank of the river (The White?) from Ellis, is a strange old hermit, Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard). Again, this is inspired casting. The now grizzled old Shepard, doyen of American theatre, icon of American cinema, plays a retired Special Forces sniper, also lying low (to think he once raced greyhounds out at Stratford…). His presence also neatly counterbalances the casting of Baker. Blankenship turns out to have been something of a mentor or father-figure for Mud. His sharpshooting comes in handy as the Texans press their enquiries over at Ellis’ house. But on another level, the character of Mud could easily come from one of Shepard’s own plays, which also thrive on mythic backwoodsmen, free spirits. Significantly, it is Blankenship that rescues the wounded Mud, smuggles him away in the repaired boat, never to return. The myth is preserved by a writer, for a writer.

But the movie is saddled with sub-plots that steer the story elsewhere and diffuse its impact. Ellis is ostensibly the focus, but not a particularly rewarding or consistent one. The whole adventure unfolds as his parents agree to a divorce that will see them leave their riverside home and end his father’s livelihood as a fisherman. The theme of love gone sour obviously is meant to chime with the tale of Mud and Juniper, but we never really find out what the issue is between Ellis’ mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) and father, Senior (Ray McKinnon). At most we see a standoff, where Senior refuses to discuss whatever it is, and stubbornly reads the newspaper. Even more unsatisfactory is Ellis’s high school crush on a senior, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). Again there’s an obvious parallel between Mud’s idolising of Juniper and Ellis’ gauche moves. But Ellis never seems quite so naïve to believe he can date a senior, seriously count her as a girlfriend. Falling back on my own experience at that age, I can attest to lusting after senior girl’s bodies, but dates or ‘girlfriends’ were inevitably drawn from same age or younger girls. I can’t think of any boy who went out with an older girl, ever. No one was that mature, not even kids repeating the year. At that age even a year is a huge difference in maturity, and girls have it all over boys, from then on, really. So Ellis’ situation simply lacks credibility for me. I know he’s meant to seem hopelessly romantic, but he clearly isn’t that kind of kid. Talk of brushing up against May Pearl’s tits rings true, but that’s quite another matter. And while it’s important that the high school girls are seen as flirtatious, somewhat capricious, I didn’t think we needed the overcooked dating to get us there. It would have been more effective if Ellis and Neckbone had just observed various favoured girls from afar and commented on them. To me, that would have been more realistic as well. But the director obviously had other high school experiences. What can I say? I couldn’t share.

On top of all this there is an even more contrived twist, where Ellis falls into a pool of Cottonmouth snakes and is bitten, echoing an episode from Mud’s youth that triggered his great love for Juniper. Mud saves the day by racing him to hospital on Neckbone’s trail bike (an improbable distance given the speed of the lethal venom) but this nudges the plot into melodrama. Hokey suspense apart, a more troubling weakness lies in the characterisation of the women. Juniper predictably turns out to be a blowzy bleached blonde in hot pants, anything but the princess on a pedestal extolled by Mud. But no further characterisation is afforded her. Following her confrontation with the Texan she is to be found in a biker’s bar, picking up a pool player. Is this meant to throw the Texans off the track? Is she just a slut, reverting to type? Neither explanation is convincing. We understand she soon tires of Mud as company, from Blankenship’s weary account, but why then does she weep after finally refusing to join Mud? She may be a mess but we need to know why. She is pivotal to the story – to Ellis’ coming-of-age – but she remains no more than a convenient stereotype, the eternal, heartless temptress, in comparison with budding May Pearl and in contrast with Mary Lee, stern but inscrutable mother and wife. Actually the two actresses – Witherspoon and Paulson - are not unalike in appearance and their subtle pairing effectively brackets women’s roles in this mythic macho land. There is dutiful partner and there is fatal allure of The Other. Juniper and Mary Lee never really emerge as individuals, are never really given a voice in the story, although it’s a voice Ellis especially needs to hear, if he is to truly supposed to grow up.

And without their personalities the story never quite finds grounding in the way locations furnish a satisfying setting. The structure is built around playing off myth and reality, Mud, a refugee in the wilderness against the realities of Ellis and Neckbone, as they stray from home. Juniper, with no real grasp of her partners, in counterpoint to Mary Lee, denying something of herself for her family, up to a point, this much is in place. But while Mud is quickly shown to be naïve or a fool, there is no disclosing what lies behind Juniper or Mary Lee’s actions. And without them the story ultimately loses traction. The myth illuminates nothing. How deluded is Juniper? Is it Ellis’s adolescence that somehow threatens his mother’s authority or satisfaction? It may be a guy’s movie, but it’s one that places an uncomfortable amount at the feet of its women.
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