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Review: Despite clear picture, 'Mud' plods along

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Apart from the inadvertent attention the film has gotten thanks to star Reese Witherspoon's high-profile identity proclamation to Atlanta police, there's nothing in the new crime drama "Mud" that screams for nationwide headlines. It's not a bad film, by any means, it just could have been a whole lot better if writer-director Jeff Nichols would have upped the pace and weaved in more tension.

"Mud" stars Matthew McConaughey as the title character, a strange drifter holed up in the woods of a river island in Arkansas. He's a curiosity to young teens Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who happen first happen upon his unusual living quarters -- an old boat hoisted in set of trees -- after they set foot on the island after motorboating on a calm section of the Mississippi River.

Strangely befriending Mud, the boys start to bring him food, and as they get to know him better, start running errands for him on the mainland As it turns out, Mud is a fugitive wanted alive by authorities for a tragic crime where he was defending his longtime love Juniper (Witherspoon) -- and wanted dead by the family of the victim.

See my review of "Mud" on "KARE 11 News at 11" with Pat Evans below.

With its setting on the Mississippi River and the age and innocence of its protagonist, "Mud" is bound to draw comparisons to "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." But it's really not a stretch, either, to compare "Mud" to "Stand By Me" and "Sling Blade" -- even though the film really never rises to the brilliance of either of those classics. Like "Stand By Me," it's a coming of age story where young boys learn life's lessons through the school of hard knocks; and like "Sling Blade," the young protagonist befriends an adult with quite the checkered past.

Despite Nichols' best intentions, there's something inherently unnerving about two 14 year old boys blindly befriending a drifter who lives in the woods who openly stashes a gun in the back of his pants. Adding to the uneasy tension is the film's plodding pace, which finally kicks into high gear about 1 hour and 50 minutes, far too late a film with 2 hour and 10 minute runtime.

Now, for the sake of argument, maybe that sort of hap-hazard, non-judgmental friendless is part of the culture in Arkansas; but to me, this is a storyline that would have probably played a lot better in the 1970s instead of now, where in today's society notion of two boys hanging out with a complete stranger -- much less, a gun-toting fugitive who goes off on the occasional tangent -- is insane.

If you can somehow manage to get past that questionable premise, the rest of "Mud" becomes somewhat fascinating, as Nichols swirls Ellis in a particularly challenging pool of emotional quandaries. Facing the impressionable teen are all aspects of love and his expectations of it as as an adult: On the downside, there's pending divorce of his parents (the always impressive Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) and on the upside, Mud's idyllic stories of his love for Juniper. In the middle of it all are Ellis' confused feelings for his first big crush, a 17-year-old girl (Bonnie Sturdivant).

While McConaughey is billed in the lead in "Mud," the story is essentially told from the point of view of Ellis, and Sheridan impressively shoulders the burden of carrying the film. He's the more serious of the two teens, and Lofland, whose buzzed haircut ironically makes him resemble a "Stand By Me"-era River Phoenix, is flawless as the film's blunt, comic relief.

While McConaughey has no doubt had a solid career in Hollywood, he no doubt continues to grow as a dramatic actor in "Mud." Here he's showing that he's willing to take risks and get ugly for roles, inside and out (here he brings a great amount of mystery to the disheveled, chip-toothed Mud). Better yet, he allows for room for his young co-stars to step up, and his performance is enhanced in the presence of Sam Shepard, who plays a pivotal role as a man privy to Mud's muddy past.

If you're going to see Witherspoon in "Mud," you may be disappointed to find out she's a supporting character at best. True, her character is pivotal to the story, but she maybe has 15 minutes of screen time spread out over a half-dozen smaller scenes.

Unlike the other roles, Witherspoon's Juniper could have easily been played by any number of actresses -- although her, um-hmm, name recognition was clearly part of the strategy of getting people into the theater. I suppose casting an Oscar winner doesn't hurt from that standpoint, but in the context of what she does in "Mud," it doesn't help much, either.

"Mud," rated PG-13, 2 1/2 stars out of four.

See the trailer for "Mud" below.

What other local critics are saying …

Chris Hewitt lauds the film in his 4 star review in the Pioneer Press, calling it "the best movie of the year so far." He also says "there's a timeless quality to its simple story and to its characters."

Colin Covert also gives the film four stars in his Star Tribune review, saying director Nichols "creates richly realized characters in a tale that moves like a cottonmouth viper, advancing slowly until it strikes with sudden violence."

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