Chuck Koplinski: 'Mud' shines as one of year's best films

Chuck Koplinski: 'Mud' shines as one of year's best films

While many critics have compared Jeff Nichols' new film "Mud" to Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," primarily because of the movie's Mississippi River setting, it is, in fact, far closer to Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" in theme and purpose.

This coming-of-age story proves to be a moving and haunting experience as it sees one teenage boy's perception of love shattered and reformed through his dealings with a deluded romantic whose obsession ends up threatening them both.

Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) are children of the river, living on the banks of the Mississippi in Arkansas, riding daily up and down its wide expanse and into its channels on a skiff, looking for whatever it might bring them, whether it be a discarded treasure or unexpected adventure.

The latter rears its head one day when they stop on a small island looking for a large boat a friend has told them is suspended in a tree. They find the craft, having gotten there when the river was at a high flood tide, as well as a mysterious man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Desperate and hungry, he asks the boys to bring him some food the next day, which they do.

This ends up being the first in a long line of favors the man asks of them, all of which the two teens ultimately do. With each successive trip to the island, more of Mud's story is revealed. They find that he's on the run, having killed a man for abusing the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). He has taken refuge on this island, waiting for word from the woman, while calculating how they will run off together. What Mud doesn't know is that the brother and father of the man he killed are on his trail with a pack of assassins intent on taking the law into their own hands.

While the plot description reads like that of an adventure story, the film has far more important themes to examine, which push these narrative elements to the background. Like most 14-year-olds, Ellis is trying to sort through adult concerns that suddenly resonate for him. Love is at the forefront of these, and while he's attempting to interpret the mixed messages he's getting from his first girlfriend, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), he witnesses varying examples of romantic love that ultimately shatter his own.

His parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are in the midst of breaking up; he comes to know his neighbor Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) and realizes this quiet man has fled society because of a love affair gone bad; Neckbone's Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) tells him the best way to get over a broken heart is to have one meaningless sexual encounter after another. However, it's Mud's blind devotion to Juniper that delivers the fatal blow, as it leads not only to emotional wreckage but physical peril as well.

As he did with "Take Shelter," Nichols handles all of this with a deft hand, never allowing a maudlin moment to creep in, while keeping any sense of melodrama effectively at bay. He has fashioned a quiet, powerful film and knows that life's moments of great emotional import are often dealt with quietly rather than with histrionics. He handles his cast in a similar way as everyone involved dials the performances down and finds a degree of realism that's refreshing.

Young Sheridan is very good, delivering a nuanced, moving performance that one would think is beyond his years, providing us with a youthful surrogate we can funnel all of our forgotten notions of romantic love through.

However, McConaughey is the revelation here, giving a haunted tragic turn as a man who loves far too well and none too wisely. The actor is a tattered and torn Adonis here, undone by desperation, poor decisions and bad luck, but mostly by blind devotion to a romantic ideal he clings to past all reason. He delivers a moving performance that should put to rest, once and for all, the idea that he's nothing more than a pretty face.

While some may object to the film's final scene, as it does defy all logic where the reappearance of a key character is concerned, it is in keeping with Nichols' theme. Despite the fact that our pursuit of love is a foolhardy endeavor that often ends in heartache or disappointment, he contends that it is a worthy quest, one that's worth its inherent trials as, if realized but just briefly, it is a treasure that ultimately sustains us in the darkness.

'Mud' (4 stars out of 4)

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Bonnie Sturdivant, Joe Don Baker and Reese Witherspoon.

Directed and written by Jeff Nichols; produced by Lisa Marie Falcone, Sarah Green and Aaron Ryder.

A Lionsgate release. 130 minutes. Rated PG-13 (some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking). At the Art Theater.

Also new in theaters

"Internship" surprises as sincere summer sleeper. (3 stars)

Every summer season produces a sleeper, a film that comes out of nowhere and exceeds expectations. Shawn Levy's "The Internship" is that movie for 2013 as it succeeds in not only delivering some solid laughs but also manages to provide a pleasant romantic subplot. Equally important is its vital, timely message that should be embraced by all who find themselves swept away by the stifling wave of technology that seems to grow larger with each passing day.

Having proved to be an effective comedic duo in 2005's "Wedding Crashers," Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are paired here again, albeit in a far less ribald feature. They are Nick and Billy respectively, two watch salesmen who suddenly find themselves out of work. Desperate to make something of their lives before the clock runs out on them, they enroll in the internship program at Google and miraculously get through the vetting process to be admitted.

They soon realize that they're in over their heads, clueless to their surroundings and all the work being done there. This does not sit well with their teammates, a group of college kids who are required to work with them in an effort to win as many competitive tasks as possible, the end game being job offers at the corporation.

The most effective humor is mined from the generation gap that exists between Nick and Billy and these geeks who will inherit the Earth. They are completely adrift in a real-life Quidditch match, have no clue how skyping works and drive these kids mad with their non-sequiturs that reveal their techno-speak ignorance. Instead of saying "online," Billy says "on the line," while his idea for a new app, "Exchange-A-Gram," has a far too familiar ring to it to be viable. And while the film goes to the metaphor well a bit too often for laughs, the conviction in which they're delivered makes up for their overuse.

To be sure, this is a clever movie, but it does have a timely and meaningful theme that needs to be embraced as the techno-world we live in, which was touted as being able to bring us closer together, has actually driven us further and further apart. While their young colleagues ultimately get Nick and Billy up to speed for the 21st century, the duo teaches these socially awkward kids how to interact with others and actually put their computers and smartphones aside to live life. While so many of today's younger generation are computer-savvy, the fact that most of their social interactions are isolated and vicarious experiences is a dire situation and one whose impact on society as a whole has yet to be measured.

Going out on an all-night bender, actually talking to the woman you're attracted to face-to-face and taking a chance on love are all lessons that are delivered by these not-so-elder statesmen to marvelous effect. Surprisingly, Levy and his two stars take a subtle approach where this is concerned, ultimately making the message all the more palpable.

As a promotional tool, this presents Google in the best possible light and what with its recreation of its environment of endless free food, sleep pods and research areas fashioned to look like playgrounds, there's no question the firm will see a spike in inquiries for prospective employees.

However, the masterstroke here is that it is also seen as a place where the human element is welcomed and encouraged. Funny, romantic and poignant, "The Internship" effectively reminds us that there must be a bit of soul behind every machine, or we run the danger of becoming as cold and remote as the high-tech tools we use.

Both Smiths end up marooned on "After Earth." (2 stars)

Much has been written in the last week pertaining to how awful Will Smith's "After Earth" is. It has been referred to as the "Battlefield Earth" for a new generation, described as "cheesy," "horrible" and "uneven," while one critic has stated that one of the main characters "has all the likability of an anal fissure." (Yep, right along with "Call me Ishmael," this was a line I wish I had written.)

To be sure, the film is not very good, but it's not nearly as bad as to draw this sort of enmity. I think that where megastars are concerned, after awhile we long to see them fall, and when there's a whiff of failure to anything they do, instead of giving them a pass, critics and the public alike sense the blood in the water and swarm around to take part in the feeding frenzy that is the public deconstruction of the superstar we once helped build with our blind adoration.

So take all the excessively negative comments pertaining to "After Earth" with a grain of salt as this has more to do with taking Smith down a notch or two than accurately and fairly critiquing this film. If anything, this misguided sci-fi effort is an example of how powerful the actor has become on a global scale and how Sony Pictures will go to any lengths to keep him happy. (After all, they want to get another two or three "Men in Black" features out of him.)

This half-hearted effort would never been produced if a star with less clout were attached. As written by Gary Whitta and director M. Night Shyamalan, from a story by Smith, the script is a half-formed pastiche of cliches that could have stood a rewrite or three. However, when summer release dates loom and the biggest movie star in the world is pushing to get the movie made in an effort to set his own son on the same path to international fame, a luxury such as another writer taking a whack at the script cannot be afforded.

To wit, the time is the far-distant future, 1,000 years after the human race has had to abandon Earth, having befouled its atmosphere. All seems well as they've relocated to a similar planet dubbed Nova Prime; however, there are some nasty beasties there who can literally smell fear, and once the humans get a look at them, a pheromone is secreted, and you're toast.

However, one mighty warrior named Cypher Raige (Smith, who surely came up with his character's name) is able to control his fear and wipe out these baddies. His poor son Kitai (Jaden Smith) has a hard time living in his dad's shadow and up to his reputation; however, he gets a chance to prove himself when they both crash-land on Earth and must navigate its hostile terrain and combat fierce wildlife to survive.

Plot-wise, the film is a linear exercise that doesn't dare to divert from its predestined conclusion. As a showcase for its 14-year-old star, the movie is pitched directly to that demographic and as such is free from complications or complexity.

Adding to the movie's woes is the fact that the elder Smith is out of the action for most of the film — poor Cypher suffers two broken legs in the crash — and it's up to Jaden to carry the load. The kid proved he had presence in "The Karate Kid" redo, but having seen him here, I'm left with the notion that he was simply playing a variation of himself in the remake.

Here, where he's required to develop and play a character, he's as lost as an addled starship drifting in deep space. When you find yourself hoping that a sabertooth tiger will rip the poor kid to shreds so that the movie will mercifully come to an end, then you've got a real problem.

Surely Smith will survive and provide more summer blockbusters in the future. However, the fate of poor Jaden's career is a question mark after "After Earth."

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski and at his blog here. He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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