I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Mud

tn_mudMUD is the latest from Jeff Nichols, whose SHOTGUN STORIES and TAKE SHELTER I’ve been a big not-get-around-to-er of for years. I hear they’re great from people I trust and then I go watch a BLOODSPORT or something. But some day I’m gonna make you guys proud. For now I’ve just seen MUD.

As you can tell by the title, MUD is one of these historical fiction adventures where Dr. Samuel Mudd, imprisoned for aiding John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, has to redeem himself by solving mysteries from his cell on Shark Island using his forensic knowledge and what not. But then there’s a twist where actually he’s not redeeming himself at all, he’s giving medical attention to various bad guys like Jesse James, Jack the Ripper, Count Dracula, etc. And then it’s a triple twist because actually he’s redeeming himself by giving them medical attention but then trying to influence them to be better people. It’s kind of like an underworld doctor story but also redemption, procedural, action, romance, racism, etc.

Actually that’s not what MUD is about, I tricked you into reading the pitch for my new intellectual property, for sale to Hollywood as a movie or TV series or both. Please buy. I don’t need my name on the credits though if it’s all the same to you guys. As we’ve all heard, the MUD that actually exists is real good, and Matthew McConaughey is real good in it. What I had not heard was anything else, like what it was about. And I’m glad, it’s rare to see a movie completely fresh like that. You won’t get that if you keep reading.

(Why am I always telling you not to read my reviews? This kind of defeatist attitude is why some dude from Lost is not playing Samuel Mudd on tv yet)

The main characters of MUD are actually two 14 year old hellraisers, Ellis (Tye Sheridan, THE TREE OF LIFE) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). They look younger than the kids in KINGS OF SUMMER and are more likely to throw a punch, including on older, bigger people. The first line of dialogue is “…the shit?” (as in “what the shit?”) and right away they’re riding a motorbike and talking about some girl’s “titties.” And then they’re in a canoe trying to get to the little island they like to explore and get back before the one kid’s dad gets pissed. That’s the age they’re at.

On this island there’s the weirdest thing, there’s a boat stuck in a tree. A small boat, but with a little compartment you can go inside, like a treehouse. And there are Playboys in there. A stash of Playboys is now worthless because of the internet, but before you guys were born the discovery of a stash of Playboys was the most important event in a young man’s life. In many indigenous cultures when a boy turns 13 he is set loose into the desert with only a knife and a small canteen of water and he’s not allowed to return to his people until he’s found the Playboys. And usually he decides just to stay with the Playboys anyway. There’s an old saying I made up that says that when you catch a leprechaun he has to bring you to his pot of gold, and he’s always gonna be real upset about it but after you leave he says “well shit, at least I still have those Playboys I hid in the boat stuck in the tree on that island.”

mp_mudAnyway the tree-boat is a cool hangout because it has some Playboys and a little bit of food and… wait a minute, somebody’s gotta be living in this thing then. Turns out it’s this guy Mud (McConaughey), who’s hiding out on this island. He doesn’t tell them at first, but he’s a fugitive. It has something to do with a woman named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who he says he loves and was trying to protect, and there’s gangsters involved and Joe Don Baker. Mud becomes their secret friend (not in a child molester way) and they bring him supplies as he tries to fix up the boat. And they start looking into his stories and meeting the people who know him such as Juniper and “the assassin.” And they get mixed up in legitimately dangerous shit.

I noticed pretty early on, oh shit, this is kinda based on Huckleberry Finn, right? I don’t remember everything about that book but I know it’s two precocious little southern kids and they got a canoe and they become friends with a fugitive (escaped slave Jim). And I looked it up and apparently Mark Twain based the character of Huck on a dude he knew named Tom Blankenship, which is the name of the character Sam Shepard plays in this. Ah ha, I broke the code!

But you know what, it’s not just Huckleberry Finn. It’s E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. Ellis is Elliot and Mud is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Ellis finds him and he’s scared at first but they become friends. The authorities are looking for Mud and he hides him. He brings him Reese’s Pieces (canned beans). He brings him parts to build his communicator (boat). He helps him phone home (brings a note to Juniper). Back at home his parents are going through a divorce. And you know how Elliot kisses Erika Eleniak in class? These kids (and Mud too) have that same kinda fantasy of themselves as the heroes who get the girl by swooping in and rescuing her. In their minds they’re the brave young men coming in to do what’s right and save the helpless dame, in her mind it’s “holy shit, these little kids are gonna get shot.”

I think that’s sort of what it’s about. Mud is a charismatic nut, but he’s full of shit. These kids know that they shouldn’t believe some weirdo criminal they found living in a fuckin treehouse, but they’re young and trusting enough to do it anyway. Society may not have accepted his story but it’s a good story, the type of thing a 14 year old boy wants to believe. Blankenship is the wise one, he tries to tell Mud that he’s a fuckup and the kids to stay away from him, but even he likes Mud enough to get out the ol’ sniper rifle and shoot some guys who are after him when the shit goes down.

This is one of several movies to come out in the last couple years that seems designed to remind us that Matthew McConaughey is pretty awesome. There was that time when Joel Schumacher gave him the lead in A TIME TO KILL out of nowhere, and he was packaged to us as this handsome southern asshole that could star in shitty legal thrillers and romantic comedies where he would take his shirt off. We shoulda known better but alot of us thought that was who he was. I think since then he’s returned to that guy we first saw in DAZED AND CONFUSED, a funny crazy dude with enough natural magnetism to pull his square peg into a Hollywood round hole. He’s turned into a butterfly and he’s spreading his wings.

At the same time, it’s really the two kids that hold this movie. They’re funny and relatable and you’ll probly consider renaming one of your buddies Neckbone. I like the recurring motif of Ellis introducing him and his friend to people, and Neckbone doing a little half-hearted wave when he says his name.

There are alot of themes in this movie that deserve more thought from me, but the simple pleasure of the thing is the very likable, natural performances by these two kids, who seem like real people, and their extra-terrestrial pal, who maybe doesn’t but is entertaining to watch. There aren’t too many movies like this that are about kids but not cleaned up or idealized, not treated as grownups in kid bodies but also they swear like real kids and do stupid shit. It’s about being at an age where you think a girl can fall in love with you if you punch a guy who’s mean to her, but also you have to face the reality of losing the riverboat you grew up in because of your parents’ divorce and whose name it’s registered under and property laws and what not.

I thought it was pretty good. Anyway, give me a call about the MUDD tv show I created and fully own, thanks NBC.


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, November 18th, 2013 at 1:28 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “Mud”

  1. I didn’t really care for this one all that much, but as I’m at work I’ll wait until later to extrapolate on that point. I will say that my favorite thing about MUD was the fact that Michael Shannon essentially plays McConaughey’s DAZED AND CONFUSED character here.

  2. I would watch your Mudd tv show. Alas, I do not work for NBC.

  3. I would call TAKE SHELTER one of my favorite horror films of the past decade or so. That is all.

  4. This one is enjoyable enough. I agree with Handsome Dan, my favorite part of the Film is Michael Shannon’s against type performance as Neckbone’s laid back uncle.

  5. I liked this one. Cool characters. Quirky without being high on its own quirkiness. Good performances. Poignant and uplifting but not too cloying. Not in a rush to wow us. Has the confidence to take its time and let us chill with characters and get to know them. A powerful meditation on dysfunctional patterns– breaking free of them and staying stuck in them. A lot of funny moments, esp when Michael Shannen’s in the house.

  6. Nice review. I liked this movie quite a bit.

    Now watch TAKE SHELTER. Seriously. Just do it.

  7. TAKE SHELTER is pretty good but if you want the full gold-plated five star Michael Shannon Is Crazy And Intense experience you should check out BUG. It’s the movie Friedkin and Letts made before they collaborated on KILLER JOE and it feels a lot closer to its theater roots. Just two great actors playing off eachother and going nuts in a motel room.

  8. Put down your BLOODFISTS and BLOODSPORTS and watch TAKE SHELTER already. Jesus.

  9. I don’t know. TAKE SHELTER was good. Shannon was great, as always. And it made me real nervous, so there was that. But the ending kind of made me feel like I’d been had. Others may feel differently.

    Point being, BLOODSPORT was a way better use of Vern’s time.

  10. Killer Joe was great…I was left with a big grin on my face and the feeling that I might never look at a southern fried chicken drumstick in the same way again.

  11. I liked KILLER JOE, too, but all that hype over that scene made it seriously overwhelming to me. You tell me McConaughey does something seriously fucked up to Gina Gershon with a drumstick, I’m picturing something a little more disturbing than SPOILER he puts it in her mouth. I mean, that’s where drumsticks go. It’s a good movie (and it introduced me to “Strokin'” by Clarence Carter, a song that has brought me no end of joy) but that scene should not have been the selling point.

  12. “underwhelming,” I meant to say. I was underwhelmed by that scene.

  13. THEORY: The McConaughey redemption mobile first kicked into life with TROPIC THUNDER. First time he seemed to take a step back from the Movie Star thing and just KILL IT in a supporting role. Even in later stuff like LINCOLN LAWYER or BERNIE, when he’s much closer to center stage, you can see McConaughey relax and allow his inborn charisma to hold center of screen while letting other players have the big moments. That kind of unselfish attitude fosters the dense, constantly rewarding films he’s been so a part of lately.

  14. Maj: I didn’t like the ending at first as I felt it literalised something that was better left ambiguous, but upon reflection I looked at it as a metaphor for his loved ones accepting his mental illness and them learning to cope with it as a family. I’m gonna send a Vern a DVD labelled BLOODSPORT 5: TAKE SHELTER and trick him into watching it.

    I agree about KILLER JOE. Almost every review I read called out “the K Fried C scene” and it wasn’t nearly as depraved as I had imagined. A steady diet of sleazy exploitation films will do that to you, I guess. Pretty good film, though. A key part of the Matthew McConaissance.

  15. Is the MUDD tv show idea a reference to SLEEPY HOLLOW? I watched the first episode of that show after hearing it was batshit insane cuckoo bananas. It was kind of weird, I guess, for a network tv show.

  16. That’ll be it – Killer Joe was one of those films I went in knowing nothing about. There’s a lot going on in that scene (the fact that it’s a rape without any actual sexual contact but it’s rape nonetheless in that it’s not about sex but power, the symbolisation of the drumstick, the fact that the other characters are watching it happen where maybe they wouldn’t if if was a conventional rape) that made it more powerful somehow than it would have been if the filmmakers had gone down – no pun intended – the more conventional route. And it still kept the audience on Killer Joe’s side – it was about belittling her character, not getting his rocks off.

    Also agreed, Illinois Smith, about Bug. One of those films that convincingly takes two characters from sad but reasonably normal to completely fucking insane within 90 minutes. Shannon’s batshit cameo in Revolutionary Road is also worth mentioning.

  17. “and it introduced me to “Strokin’” by Clarence Carter, a song that has brought me no end of joy”

    I’ve been a fan of that song since the old YTMND days

  18. I’m with CC — the disturbing element of that scene is it’s context, not it’s exact content. I guess the hype lead people to believe that Friedkin has imagined some new kind of perversion never seen before on this Earth, but guys, I watch all the fucked up movies that you do and that is one sick fucking scene, maybe more so because as CC points out, it’s pretty much 95% a rape where we’re sort of allowed and encouraged to side with the rapist. If you didn’t find that sufficiently prurient, I don’t know what to tell ya, you probably ought to give up the idea that you’ll ever be shocked by a movie again.

  19. do the kids get Detective John Mud drunk and disguise him in a dress at any point?

  20. Ooh, I’ve written about this movie as well. Right here: http://www.the-editing-room.com/mud.html

  21. Me and a buddy used to sit around and try to think of the dumbest/most plausible shit that we could actually pitch to someone at a network. I remember being really fond of JACK PEPPER, PI MD PHD. It was a one-hour crime drama about a disgraced doctor that ends up practicing law and moonlighting as a private investigator. He could literally be the best guy for any random situation/murder. Like Vern’s MUD tv show, JACK PEPPER is totally for sale.

  22. I’m sorry but how the fuck are you gonna side with Killer Joe during the chicken scene? That’s troubling, guys.

    I didn’t know Mud was the same guy as Take Shelter. What a disappointing follow-up.

  23. Just saw this tonight. This Jeff Nichols guy is somewhat of a great filmmaker in my opinion. He’s a bit like Malick but with less of the poetic stuff. Closer to Sean Penn’s directorial style.

    SHOTGUN STORIES is a minor classic. TAKE SHELTER and MUD are close to perfect.

    Love the end of MUD, the shootout. Sam Shepard kicks arse.

    But is there a McConnaughy film where he DOESN’T take his shirt off? Someone needs to tell him muscles only have acting credibility if you’re Schwarzenneger in COMMANDO or CONAN.

  24. Just came back from seeing MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Two things – 1) I fucking loved it. 2) Not enough reviews are mentioning how awesome all of the car related action and stunts are choreographed, shot, edited and scored. It’s a thoughtful, sweetly sad rumination on owning up and letting go but also a bunch of cars drive through shit and skid out and roll over and it’s beautiful. It’s a road trip movie, so lots of car related shit should have been expected. And yet I wasn’t expecting it. It’s just a great “driving movie” period. Just the feel and sound of being on the road at night, under cover of darkness, being pursued and trying to find an angle to shake your tail so you can make it through to the next checkpoint in one piece.

    I particularly loved the sequence towards the end where the (SPOILER) “traffic jam leads to an off-road car chase” scenario is completely and successfully flipped on its head.

    Based on the vehicular shit in this film, plus the strong themes of family, loyalty, codes of honour, not being Hargensen and learning to change and become a better motherfucker, I would like to nominate Jeff Nichols as my choice as director of one of the entries in the new trilogy of FURIOUS joints.

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