Written & Directed by Jeff Nichols
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon
Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” is cinematic storytelling at its best.
One could categorize the film as a coming-of-age effort but that would be uncharitable–the writer-director clearly has higher aspirations than that. And he knows what he’s doing, as evidenced by even the briefest inserts, still life shots that concisely, effectively portray that atmosphere and feel of the Arkansas region where the movie is set.
The plot is rather straightforward (young boys encountering and befriending a fugitive, the complications that arise from close proximity to a man who has always attracted trouble), it’s the mix and interplay of characters that really distinguish the film and help it rise above the commonplace.
Mathew McConaughey is one of those actors (George Clooney is another) who is instantly likable and draws our gaze effortlessly…I believe they call that quality “charisma”. As the title character, McConaughey is endearing, maddening, disreputable, his crooked-toothed leer a greeting and a challenge. It is the best role and film he’s been handed in his checkered career and he makes the most of it. You can almost smell the salty sweat he exudes, a miasma of accumulated life experiences…and mistakes. Mud is a man condemned by hopeless love and cursed with poor impulse control. Child-like, at times, and that is when he is most vulnerable (and dangerous).
The other players are also superb: Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, as the two young boys are natural, entirely credible. Neither are intimidated or impressed by adults, demanding to be taken seriously, seeking control over their own lives. Sheridan, in particular, is riveting onscreen; are we witnessing the arrival of the next River Phoenix or Dakota Fanning? Mr. Nichols’ reputation as a film-maker allows him to draw upon the talents of supremely gifted actors who are willing to forego high salaries, accepting minor, supporting roles, sometimes amounting to little more than vignettes, if only to participate on a project with the director. That speaks highly of him and the respect with which he is held. Thus, in the case of “Mud” we are treated to contributions from thespians like Michael Shannon, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard and the great Joe Don Baker, the first time I’ve seen him onscreen in years (missed you, big guy).
Even clocking in at over two hours, “Mud” is never a chore, the pacing riverine, the drama ebbing and flowing, the scenery and photography absolutely immersing us in the world Nichols is evoking. That aspect of his work has drawn comparisons to Terence Malick but, frankly, Nichols doesn’t linger over his tableaux as Malick does, his composition and themes not as complex or overtly artistic or, I would argue, pretentious. While I have some quibbles with the overly upbeat ending, a case of a director-writer loving his creations too much to bring them to permanent harm, I must confess that “Mud” exceeded all expectations and will likely find its way onto my “Year’s Best” list.
I doubt very much if there will be too many films on my annual poll as enjoyable or attractive, that rare combination of splendid artistry and a gripping narrative that utterly compels our interest.
Mr. Nichols is the real deal.
ΩΩΩΩ (out of 5)
“The Angels’ Share” (2012)
Written & Directed by Ken Loach
Cast: Paul Brannigan, John Henshaw, Siobhan Reilly, Gary Maitland, William Ruane
One of the winners at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “The Angels’ Share” is the latest in a recent string of films released by the British auteur, Ken Loach. For a man in his seventh decade, he has certainly been prolific in the past few years, his range and aesthetic ambitions undiminished.
“The Angels’ Share” presents something of a quandary to me–it is not the best Ken Loach film I’ve ever seen, perhaps not even in the upper tier. Admittedly, I might have missed some fine points of plot and characterization because of the impenetrable Scot accents, a thick, speedy brogue that brought to mind the books and short stories of Irvine Welsh or James Kelman; at times, I found myself pining for subtitles or the services of an expert translator.
As with “Mud”, the storyline of “The Angels’ Share” is deceptively familiar, a diverse and motley group assembling to commit a crime, a variation of the tried and true caper film. But Mr. Loach is no Guy Ritchie and his sensibilities and interests lie elsewhere. He mainly concerns himself with Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a character in the process of transformation, a street thug attempting to turn his life around for the sake of his new son. A sentence to community service throws Robbie together with a bunch of other minor criminals and a sympathetic overseer (John Henshaw) who introduces him to the exotic world of rare whiskys…and soon the plot is hatched.
The crime itself seems relatively victimless and our sympathies lie entirely with a gang, whose only weapons are nerve, pluck and desperation. There is little in the way of drama or tension despite some jarring scenes of violence involving Robbie and some local rivals. The biggest threat to the enterprise are the perpetrators themselves–these are not the finest, most discriminating minds who have ever pulled off a heist. Petty thieves and hooligans, dogged by poor life choices, bad decisions fueled by drink or stupid bravado. Ronald Biggs would’ve laughed them out the door.
No huge surprises or epiphanies and the denouement is devoid of messy consequences. This isn’t the Ken Loach who has made a career or troubling and unsettling us, a trait evident from his very first feature, “Kes”, a disregard for convention or lockstep conformity that has drawn the ire of various authorities and control entities. He has been condemned, censored, censured and marginalized. Like his contemporary, Mike Leigh, he is at his best when working in a controlled fury on a project that engages his political and moral energies. “The Angels’ Share” seems like a minor work, less impassioned, more constrained. The cast are well directed, the production well managed but the lack of dramatic tension works against it . While the overall effort may not rise to the level of “Ladybird, Ladybird”, “Hidden Agenda”, “Riff Raff” or “Kes”, I commend it for holding our interest and not infrequently (especially Gary Maitland as “Albert”) tweaking the funny bone.
Second tier Ken Loach is still miles beyond most of the other films out there. “The Angels’ Share” is never stupid or condescending–for that reason, it can be forgiven a few faults and shortcomings and granted at least conditional affection and respect.
ΩΩΩ1/2 (Out of 5)