Mud (2012) – Movie Review

Directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Matthew McConaughey, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Taylor Lofner, Michael Shannon…wait, what? Wasn’t he Zod in Man of Steel? Huh, what else has he OH MY GOSH THERE’S A HANK THE COWDOG PODCAST ADAPTATION THAT JUST CAME OUT LAST YEAR OH MY GOSH AND IT’S AVAILABLE ONLINE (okay, back to business)

TLDR 1: This movie did not represent me…unless you take into consideration representation actually is.

TLDR 2: it’s really good.

This movie is easily two hours long, and it was around an hour and a half in that something–right around the time all the threads pull together and the plot starts moving on nitro–bumped it up for me from “I’m watching intently” to “Oh, I’m gonna to show this to my friends”…whether they like it or not.

It’s a boy’s movie, and the women in it are secondarily characters and primarily sources (and forces) of conflict. So why did I like it? How can I like a movie that doesn’t represent me?

Because representation is not about what the character’s skin color is. There never has been, ever, a heroine who looks like me, even the ones who stare at themselves in a mirror and whine about having brown hair instead of blonde. But there have been many heroines that I can sympathize with–and many heroes.

This movie spoke to me because I can sympathize with the protagonists when they learn that the people you admire and look up to might not be worth that admiration or don’t have all the answers, that love might not conquer all; that your parents are fallible, and yet still love you, and still are worthy of respect. I can sympathize with the struggles of having to leave a familiar, beloved home but still know that my friends have got my back. And though the target has changed and changes often, sometimes I just totally wanna beat the hell out of people, you can totally understand why. And hell, I still flip out over Hank the Cowdog because I loved those books to pieces when I was a kid and I was not, at last check, a dog.

This movie is excellent because I can admire the protagonists, even though they’re imperfect, frequently make bad decisions and quite often stupid ones, work hard but still need outside resources, fight hard and still need help. They’re courageous, generous, loyal, and honorable. When they think something ought to be done, they go and try do it, regardless of odds or reasons. They’re good men–or trying to be–or learning to be.

And it’s a good story, told in a way I personally really like: with tons and tons of implied backstory that motivates everyone, shapes their reactions and explains their actions but which isn’t actually shown, merely implied. I love that one. It means someone has sat down and thought things through.

So what is the story?

Well, there’s these two kids, (Tye Sheridan as main hero Ellis, and Taylor Lofner as Neckbone)–who are out exploring an island on the Mississippi river where unexplained events have somehow stranded a boat in a tree. They claim the boat as their own but soon discover that someone else has gotten there first: a man with hob-nailed boots, snakes tattooed on his hands, a white shirt with a wolf’s eye sewn into it that protects him (and a pocketful of other weird superstitions) who calls himself “Mud.” (Matthew McConaughey)

Mud is on the island, hiding out, and waiting for someone. He asks the boys to bring him food and keep an eye out for his girl, the most beautiful woman they’ve ever seen. This turns out to be Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and the relationship between her and Mud turns out to be a lot more complicated than first appearance. Mud has been infatuated with Juniper since they were children, but, it is later revealed to the boys, he also has a history of violently attacking anyone else who gets involved with her…or maybe Juniper sets him off on purpose. That’s been their pattern for a long, lont time–but this time he’s killed someone. Mud’s story is that he did it to protect Juniper from being outright murdered by an abusive boyfriend…and though circumstances seem to bear him out, the guy’s family has muscle, money, and is out for blood. Oh, and they have a couple of informants in the Sheriff’s department, the hospital, and the state police.

Mud recruits the boys to help him to repair the boat so he and Juniper can make it down the river to God knows what but he seems to think it’ll be freedom.

Ellis throws himself into the project as a way of escaping from, or seeking answers to, the problems in his own life that he doesn’t have the power or vocabulary to address directly. His parents are separating: his mother is done with their rickety houseboat and hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and his father isn’t taking this at all well. At the same time, Ellis’s love life is taking its first tentative steps, only for him to discover that, while girls might find doglike infatuation flattering, they are vain and deceitful at heart and not to be trusted…

So it goes, right up until the part when the wheels come, inevitably and completely, crashing off.

Again, why is it good?

Because it’s an interesting story, well-told. It has themes which, while meaningful, are never over-emphasized. Because it has, first and foremost, well-realized, deeply human characters who are flawed but basically good and who learn from their mistakes to become better. Or, at least, learn not to make those particular mistakes again. In Mud’s case, it’s taken a lifetime. Ellis, though, might not take so long and might not have to end up hiding out on a deserted island running from the cops and your girlfriend’s boyfriend’s vengeful father’s henchmen.

What else? Oh yeah, the acting is superb, including the child actors; the script never once made me cringe (possibly because even the more, shall we say “thematic” bits were delivered so well), so, props for the casting as well as the acting; the cinematography is very pretty and the colors are–well, actually the color is pretty washed out and brown but Arkansas, amirite? There’s also a pretty badass shootout at the end.

You’re a good man movie, Mud.