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Cannes Review: 'Mud' Starring Matthew McConaughey Is An Underwhelming Anti-Fairy Tale

Reviews
by Simon Abrams
May 26, 2012 8:28 AM
27 Comments
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"Mud."

"Mud," American writer/director Jeff Nichols' underwhelming follow-up to the masterfully visceral "Take Shelter," is a shallow and contrived coming of age story. While both 'Shelter' and "Shotgun Stories," Nichols' promising debut feature, explore their respective characters' motives and emotions, "Mud" instead offers pat sentiments and bland bathos.

While his parents talk about separating, Ellis (Tye Sheridan, one of the boys in Malick's "The Tree Of Life"), an adolescent native of DeWitt, Arkansas, helps Mud (an accomplished performance from Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive, reunite with his lover. Ellis isn't initially sure why he confides in Mud. But ultimately, Ellis sticks by the titular Byronic redneck in a predictably vain attempt to understand his parents’ break-up and why self-evident displays of affection cannot be taken at face value. Every ounce of mystery and promise established in the first half hour of "Mud" evaporates once it becomes clear that Nichols is more earnestly interested in using Mud to disabuse Ellis of his romantic ideals. "Mud" isn't a dud because it's more easy-going or more bloated than Nichols's previous films, though it is both of those things. It’s a misfire because unlike Nichols’s previous narratives, “Mud” just isn't as well-conceived or even that theoretically rewarding.

Ellis spends much of “Mud” ignoring the obvious ways that the people he cares about don’t conform to his expectations. He ignores repeated warnings from people like concerned neighbor Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), who insists Mud isn’t the good person Ellis thinks he is. And with the help of his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), Ellis decides to help Mud reunite with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), Mud’s fair-weather lover. Juniper is, in other words, not the “pretty” and loyal person Mud makes her out to be, either. In that sense, it’s essential for Ellis’s growth as a character for him to reluctantly see for himself just how unfaithful Juniper is (a bar scene that establishes this point is especially tedious).

The same is true of Ellis’s clichéd and crassly manipulative relationship with May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), an older teenager who’s just not as into Ellis as he is into her. At first, Ellis just takes it as a given that he has momentarily impressed May Pearl because he decked a senior who tried to push her around. But as we immediately see, May Pearl deliberately doesn’t answer Ellis when he asks her to be his girlfriend, preferring instead to respond with a kiss on the lips. So again, for Ellis to grow up, he’s got to see that a punch in the mouth is not the same thing as being chivalrous and that a kiss on the lips is not a confession of love.

Worse still, the real reason why Ellis needs to learn these lessons from everyone but his parents is both the most disappointing and the most intentionally under-developed subplot in “Mud.” In the film’s introductory scene, Ellis’s parents Senior and Mary Lee (the equally exceptional duo of Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) start to fight while he sneaks out to meet Neckbone. Senior and Mary Lee are the most interesting characters in the film, especially since they may disagree about how to discipline their son but are united in their flinty affection for him. But since Ellis is apparently only able to become sufficiently disillusioned by proxy in “Mud,” Ellis’s parents are only supporting characters at best. So while they are the most fully realized characters in “Mud,” Nichols’s film unfortunately isn't (directly) about them.

The same is true of Neckbone’s uncle Galen (the sorely wasted Michael Shannon), a womanizing loner who makes his living by digging up clams. When Galen is introduced, Neckbone is told by Galen’s latest conquest not to grow up to be like his irresponsible and ungentlemanly uncle. But as we see, Galen is actually one of the most sensitive, though hardly perceptive, characters in the film. In time, Galen notices Neckbone and Ellis’s trips to visit Mud and gets worried. And he even tries to gently steer the duo towards telling someone they trust about Mud. But because he’s not a burly, mysterious, conflicted antihero like Mud, Galen’s also not the guy Ellis learns his lesson from. “Mud” is as unmoving as it is because it doesn’t aspire to be anything other than a competent anti-fairy tale in which the paint-by-number morals are enforced by equally obvious main protagonists. [C]

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27 Comments

  • Spencer | March 1, 2014 4:57 AMReply

    I didn't learn anything valuable from my parents when they were fighting in the early hours of the morning, either. Do you look to exhausted and aggravated people for advice? You fool!

  • Clara | October 25, 2013 7:36 AMReply

    Very tedious and cliche, why the hell this has 98% on RT I have no idea!

  • Your Mom | August 28, 2013 8:01 AMReply

    Please go die in a fire.

  • MovieJay | August 4, 2013 4:03 AMReply

    Another dumb Abrams review. The film never says he doesn't learn things from his parents. It's that at the time that this film is happening, his parents are in the middle of negotiating their separation, ass-clown!

    It's typical of kids whose parents are breaking up to glean wisdom by "proxy", you goof. When my friend's parents were splitting, he was at my house for like a year to get away from the tension at his, and guess what? He picked up a few lessons!

  • BAMF | June 25, 2013 11:40 PMReply

    Correct.

  • EOS | May 27, 2013 1:02 PMReply

    Well, this is the first time that I actually felt that it was necessary to correct a critic. The movie "MUD" is what I would call a true piece of art. Its ability to transport the viewer out of their surroundings and into the world of two southern boys is something that has been lost to the majority of movies that are being produced today. There is a reason for MUD recieving 99% approval on this site. It is by far the most original film of 2013. If you miss out on this film, your missing out on a future classic.

  • Moose | June 19, 2013 3:49 AM

    lol, your first time? I love the bull you emit. You just copy and pasted your same comment from another review for MUD.

  • RandyL | May 26, 2013 1:18 PMReply

    I absolutely agree with this review. Three of us saw it and were not only bored, found it full of unanswered questions that badly needed to be answered for anyone with an ounce of intellectual curiosity and logic. None of it was believable from how he got to the island with a loaf of fresh bread, his clean white shirt, his constant 2 day stubble beard, the plan without a plan to unite with his girlfriend when they had no idea where to even look for each other. MAJORLY over-rated! The only saving grace was the 2 young boys. The 99% rating on RT is simply a farce. Lots of Lemmings!

  • Dan | May 20, 2013 5:12 PMReply

    I dislike this review, I thought better of this website. I saw the film and loved nearly everything about it, just so well done, well acted, well writen, well shot, etc, its great. Its got 98% on rotten tomatoes, so I think the critics were loving it generally.

  • Thomas | May 25, 2013 12:34 PM

    Actually, it has a 99% on RT now, proving how even more questionable this reviewer's opinion is.

  • MrDan | May 11, 2013 2:19 PMReply

    Simon Abrams is as unmoving as he is because he doesn't aspire to be anything other than an incompetent, paint-by-numbers, wannabe critic who is blinded by his own self-importance.

    I bet he wishes he could take this one back.

  • Frost Zee | May 11, 2013 2:31 PM

    A lot of the younger writers are exactly this. Calum Marsh, Elrich, few others etc. etc. Good writers, but total self-important asshats which negates the writing.

  • Fred Spoerl | May 5, 2013 11:48 PMReply

    Very disappointed in this movie. Hardly any of the plot seems plausible. Kids actually stealing a boat motor and all the other stuff for Mud and the motor ends up twice as large. Real dumb.

  • jingmei | June 11, 2012 3:26 AMReply

    Just read bunch of reviews about the current showing films, the average rating of them is C. Is it a phenomenon? ;

  • Dan | May 26, 2012 5:53 PMReply

    Either the film really is that opaque or this review is.

  • sap | May 26, 2012 4:51 PMReply

    I think mattew is getting good personal reviews for this one .

  • the dude | May 26, 2012 1:12 PMReply

    All the reviews that I've read say the same things; not as emotionally potent as Take Shelter, too sappy or unoriginal to care for. That's a good thing. I'm sure this film will get wide distribution in the US. Nichols has said before that he wants to make studio films. Apparently there was a good, solid reaction at the screening at Cannes. I'm excited to see it. Critics can be too hard some times.

  • Slamalamadindong | May 26, 2012 12:35 PMReply

    This review is sloppy as balls. Wtf is going on?

  • kitcon | May 26, 2012 11:04 AMReply

    The problem when different people are reviewing is you don't get a feel of how the film stacks on their personal list. It's a pity because throughout the festival, it was Kevin telling us what he thought and felt. With a film like Mud that some others love , it would have been nice to compare his ratings.

  • Mr Anonymous | May 26, 2012 10:05 AMReply

    Seems from The Playlist's perspective there haven't really been any standout movies from this year's Cannes film festival? Not a criticism, just an observation. Out of all the reviews posted i think the one that was remotively positive was Cosmopolis. The rest have all been middling to negative. What's left to be seen??

  • Kevin | May 26, 2012 1:58 PM

    Killing Them Softly was outstanding.

  • mark | May 26, 2012 11:01 AM

    What are you talking about? Both Audiard's "Rust & Bone" and Leos Carax's "Holy Motors" got an A- and i'm pretty sure Haneke's "Amour" got an A too.

  • Mr Anonymous | May 26, 2012 10:29 AM

    Yip, that's right. Forgotten about those, they were right at the start of the festival.

  • Wes Anderson | May 26, 2012 10:14 AM

    You are forgetting "No" and "Moonrise Kingdom."

  • Zack | May 26, 2012 9:13 AMReply

    So not a great week for McConnaughey, review-wise. But at least he's apparently back to giving a shit.

  • Dan | May 26, 2012 5:54 PM

    Seconded.

  • Edward Davis | May 26, 2012 11:12 AM

    "LIKE"

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