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Some good things, but messy at the end
on November 22, 2013
WARNING: This is a critique of the movie and contains "spoilers." The movie is worth seeing, with much to enjoy. But see first and read later (if you want to!).
There's a lot to like about "Mud." It's well-cast and well acted, it touches on engaging (and oft-treated issues), and it gives us a glimpse of a way of life in Arkansas that has a distinctive texture for all its difficulties and economic limitations. The problem is, for me, that the movie gets in its own way, so to speak. A rather clear thematic structure is undermined by aspects of the plot that turn the movie into a kind of shoot-em-up revenge thriller, and that seems gratuitous and not particularly expressive of the dominating themes of the movie. These dominating themes have to do with love and with the idea that love is unstable. The idea that love can bring a kind of stability into ones life is one that is cherished by the protagonist, a 14-year-old called Ellis (Yes, that means that Matthew McConaughy isn't the protagonist, despite the film's being named for his character.) Ellis is watching his parents' marriage fall apart for reasons that have to do with their disagreement about continuing to live in a houseboat on the river so that his father can continue to make a precarious living doing what he has always done. His mother has come to a point where she can't stand the precariousness, and she's ready to move out. Both insist that they "love" Ellis, and he loves them, and the inefficacy of his love for them and their once-secure love for each other to keep the family together is deeply troubling to Ellis ( touchingly played by Tye Sheridan). He doesn't want to give up his vision of love as able to effect more than it can, so when he and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) find a man who calls himself Mud hiding out on an island in the Mississippi (where they had discovered a boat stuck in a tree following a hurricane) and when Mud tells them that he is planning to snatch his beloved Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) from under the noses of the family of a man who want to kill him (Mud) for killing a member of the family who had treated Juniper badly, the idealistic Ellis is gung-ho to help love find a way. When Mud reveals that he has been in love with Juniper since he was Ellis's age, then he seems like the perfect example of the perfect lover. So a plan is hatched to get the boat out of tree, have it reconditioned with whatever the boys can find or steal (including an engine!), and use it to have Mud and Juniper make their escape. As the plans go forward, the patriarch of the family seeking revenge on Mud (Joe Don Baker, looking old) arrives in the town (called DeWitt in the movie) knowing that Juniper is there and figuring that Mud must be nearby. Joe Don brings along a bunch of hired guns to make sure that Mud will not escape them.
Well, it all goes pear-shaped. To Ellis's deep disappointment, Juniper (although she claims that she once loved Mud) isn't really all that keen to be rescued by him, and Ellis learns that her relationship with Mud has for years been marked by serial unfaithfulness on her part. In her defense, she tells Ellis that Mud is unreliable and a liar. Ellis is devastated -- this isn't the fairytale romance that he hoped to enable, and he is the more vulnerable because his first awkward attempts to get a girlfriend end in humiliation. He goes back to the island, excoriates Mud, tells him what Juniper has been saying, and rushes off, wanting nothing more to do with him.
So how to wrap this all up? This is where another kind of plot (the thriller) takes over and blurs the thematic clarity. Ellis, in running away from Mud, is bitten by a poisonous snake. Mud, throwing caution to the winds, gets him off the island and to a hospital, but his coming into town in such a dramatic fashion tips off the family and killers who are hunting him. He accepts that he and Juniper have no future and tries to make his escape, but first visits Ellis in his home to say goodbye and patch up their relationship -- he did save Ellis's life, after all. He is followed to Ellis's house by his pursuers, heavily armed, and the scene is set for mayhem. Enter the deus ex machina in the shape of Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), who has a house across the water from Ellis's family and who has known and looked out for Mud for years -- and who is . . . a sharpshooter with a high-powered rifle (apparently he was either in the Marines or the CIA, depending on whose story you believe). It's all far too convenient; when the shooting starts, he sits on his porch and picks off the bad guys. At the end, he and Mud are heading down the Mississippi on the refurbished boat, Juniper, as well as Mud's illusions, having been left behind.
This Hollywood-ish ending is unfortunate. It distracts from our appreciation of subtler representations of trust and love (between the two boys, for example) or between the fatherless Neckbone and his uncle who looks after him, and even between Mud and Blankenship, perhaps. Unfortunate too, I think, is that the movie isn't all that visually interesting. It looks fine, but there's no visual rhythm to it. But see it for the ambiance and the acting. The boys are very good, and Reese Witherspoon does a fine job in what is really a very small part, as the fadedly pretty, rather slutty and shallow Juniper. Much has been made of McConaughy's Mud -- he does a fine job, and it's not his usual kind of role, but I don't see it as a huge stretch for a professional actor.