Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review: MUD

Two boys take a motor boat along a river to a wild island where they find a bigger boat lodged in a tree, left there by a flood. They climb up and into in, intending to claim it, fix it an float it but find, among some old Playboys and junk, fresh food and provisions. Beaten to it they get back to their boat and see who's beaten them to it. Well, if it ain't ol' Matthew McConaughey, go to hunkmeister of the 90s. Well, actually, it ain't ... really.

M Mc seems to have burst through the o'er grown teen he played even back in Dazed and Confused to seek weightier roles to ease the process of maturing in public. When he smiles and waves to the boys on the beach of the island he looks like someone who has been spending some time living without packaging, all sweat and stubble and it seems real.

The boys approach him and take his carefully tailored information that skirts what the adults in the audience are already understanding. The tougher boy, Neckbone, doesn't swaller a word o' it and is subject to subtler negotiation from the fugitive whose name is Mud, really, whose name is Mud. The other boy, Ellis, whose story this really is, is not so much credulous as admiring of the mythmaking he is witnessing, a kind of rough and ready but decent manliness that he can't find anywhere else. And so we come to the point of the story:  growin' erp and bein' a man.

Mud is waiting for his ladylove to turn up. The reason he's on the run has to do with his male blindness to her penchant for bad boys and the deflating unerotic affection she has for him and has had since his childhood crush on her. He has a plan to take her away on the boat once it's good 'n' fixed and doesn't have to say that he has no idea where they would go. Ellis likes the dream and sets about helping it to earth as much as he can.

Meanwhile back in town he shows in a moment that unimaginative people will say is unrealistic he shows that he is unprepared for his own masculinity when he rescues a pretty girl from a senior by sucker punching the latter into silence. It really doesn't matter how unlikely this is. In the scheme of this tale which has the feel of a well formed short story, Ellis' pluck is going to get him into all sorts o' trurble if he don' watch out. In the shorter term he has won the immediate affection of the damsel whose attention and its effect are played out like an intimately understood neural violin. Ellis' brain is pumping endorphins thicker 'n a fah hose (I should point out here that this film is set in Arkansas and I have family there so I can). That's when he sees Mud's ladylove as described in a previous scene and we know he's only going to go deeper.

At this stage I was really getting into this Whistle Down the Wind of the South with its seductive atmosphere and strong playing and wanted it to be a momument to facing up to self delusion and was gunning for a scaled epic ending where the boat might float or sink. But no, we have information that the screenwriting seminars (to be fair it might have been in the source material) would insist have resonance. The responsibility that Mud is trying to flee comes to town, armed and vengeful. It's a well played series of scenes which include one of my favourite unsung character actors, Joe Don Baker. But it means we are going to have to put up with a big showdown at the end rather than something more mythic. Sigh .... ok.

No spoilers here except to say that once the real ending between Mud and Ellis happens we have to live through the big action finish that seems compressed rather than packed. There is, however, a lovely wordless final moment which speaks the volumes it should.

I'll end here with a word about the women of this film as they seem to have gone unnoticed in a lot of the reviews I've read which complain about their ineffectuality or even their absence.

Bonnie Sturdivant is May Pearl who having been rescued by Ellis' punch affords him the life giving attention. Her performance makes the improbability of this acceptable. It is balanced by one of the many parallels between Mud and Ellis (that show the latter heading for the same mistakes as the former) in her pursuit of the stinky, oafish, hairy and constanly venereal alphas in souped cars that rev and growl like hogs. Her dismissal of him after this is carefully neither cruel nor merciful but it is believably adolescent. Her performance is not as passive as it might seem if we keep our focus too steadily on Ellis. She is real.

Sarah Paulson plays Ellis' mother, angry at her own life, living on a boat with her nowhere husband. The question of whether her plans are the right ones is clear in her face. A thanklessly rounded performance from the gal who impressed me as the ghostly Merlyn in the 90s Twin Peaks wannabe American Gothic.

Finally, the object of Mud's deluded affection, the beauty with hair of gold and birds tattooed on her hands. This strange figure, plain in one shot and dazzling in the next, seemed to know only what she was going through at any one moment, an insubstantial waht trairsh whom none could love beyond a few minutes consummating effort, who drapes herself over the arms of petrol smelling bikies at the roadhouse rather than meet her knight in the worn silk shirt who had come to take her to paradise, whose fear of the world beyond these brutes or fawning servants is revealed in slow release rather than an overliterate speech, this strange figure intrigued me. I was sure I knew who it was but couldn't guess until - really? - it snapped. Holy shit, it's Reese Witherspoon, sassy babydoll of 90s indy, post-ironic bimbo of Legally Blonde etc. She doesn't like her life but can't imagine anything outside of it. She virtually collapses outside of her trouble and witnesses it. A complex and quietly powerful performance that while dressed down doesn't have the Oscar-bait glamour of Theron uglying down to play Aileen Wournos. It's good stuff.

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