With the Memorial Day weekend in the rearview mirror, signs of the new season are rampant: a steady torrent of big-name hotties and heroes, breezes carrying the unmistakable bouquet of ironic one-liners, and hills alive with the sound of explosive special effects. A quick look at the weekend's top money-makers—Fast & Furious 6, The Hangover Part III, Star Trek Into Darkness, Epic and Iron Man 3 divvied up a three-day haul worth nearly $300 million in domestic box-office receipts—at once confirms the kick-off of Hollywood blockbuster season and demonstrates how brilliantly self-perpetuating that season has become.
There's no use bitching about the season—it is what it is, and truth be told, there's no small pleasure in viewing a finely written, deftly executed blockbuster (rare though they may be). But there are times when a moviegoer seeks shelter from the unrelenting blaze of the Big Hollywood sun, and it's comforting to know that shade can be found under the canopy of compelling narrative dramas, if you know where to look.
One such respite is Mud, the new film from story-driven writer/director Jeff Nichols. Nichols' first two films, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, generated significant acclaim from critics and audiences alike, providing him with enough creative capital to attract the likes of lead actors Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon for his third effort.
Mud is set on the banks of a Mississippi River tributary in Arkansas, where two highly independent, adolescent boys live the kind of free-wheeling river life immortalized in Twain's tales of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. When Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) explore an island and discover first an old motorboat suspended in a tree—washed there, presumably, by an epic flood—and then its quirky inhabitant, the eponymous character played by McConaughey, they're drawn in to a tapestry of love, murder and revenge that will alter their lives forever.
It's a monumental risk to lay the dramatic impetus of a film on the not-yet-broad shoulders of teen actors, but Sheridan and Lofland carry the load admirably, delivering Stand By Me-caliber performances. Those efforts are complemented nicely by the grown-ups, with McConaughey striking a pleasantly nuanced tone as the mysterious Mud, Witherspoon shedding layer upon layer of damaged beauty as Juniper, the object of Mud's lifelong desire, and splendid turns from a stellar supporting cast of actors led by Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon and Michael Shannon.
Nichols' story has some holes in it—Ellis recovers from a near-death snake bite in seemingly record time, the bad guys are inexplicably incompetent in their stakeout efforts, and the final, redemptive scene is inherently implausible—but it holds more than enough power and beauty to overcome its flaws. Nichols has a true gift for dialogue, and he uses that gift to establish both Ellis and Mud as unabashed romantics. When Ellis asks Mud to describe the moment when he knew that he loved Juniper, he says it was "like the whole world split apart and came back together new." Gorgeous stuff.
On a side note, I've often wondered if McConaughey has a clause in his movie contracts that stipulates a certain percentage of his screen time to be spent with his shirt off. While it's hard to blame the guy, given his physique, I was hoping that Mud would be the exception, just to break the vicious cycle. But there he is, two-thirds through the movie, in all his shirtless glory. I wonder if Nichols wrote the shirtless scenes into the script to attract McConaughey, or if he retro-fitted the script to accommodate the Shirtless Wonder. In either case, I give Nichols credit for incorporating specific thematic elements that support Mud's exposed torso, making those scenes less gratuitous and, I'd like to think, the payoff of a clever joke.
Mud continues at the Wilma Theatre.