Tag Archives: A-

MUD

Producer: 
Director: 
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: 

A-

A coming-of-age tale that’s also a suspense thriller, Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” continues the string of remarkable films the writer-director began with “Shotgun Stories” and followed with the stunning “Take Shelter.” At once ode to a vanishing way of life and homage to the Mississippi River masterworks of Mark Twain, this beautifully realized picture is easily one of the year’s best thus far.

Matthew McConaughey, bolstering the career resurgence he started with “The Lincoln Lawyer” and continued with “Magic Mike,” “Bernie” and “Killer Joe,” stars as the title character, a bedraggled miscreant on the run from the law for killing his love Juniper’s nasty Texas boyfriend. But the story is told from the perspective of Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a fourteen-year old who, along with his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), sneaks to an island in the Mississippi where it’s rumored that a boat has been left dangling in a tree after a recent flood. For Ellis, the trip takes him away from troubles at the family houseboat, where his father Senior (Ray McKinnon) and mother Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) are going through a rough patch at least partially caused by the threat that they might lose their home.

The boys find not only the boat well above ground, but also Mud, who’s taken up residence in it to avoid police roadblocks and searches—as well as the private army the father of the man he killed has sent after him. Mud enthralls them with his tall tales, mysterious allusions to the magical properties of his lucky (indeed, only) shirt, and stories of his undying love for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), whom he rescued from a terrible fate and is now desperate to reunite with. And they decide to help the charming reprobate, who treats them with a directness and respect they’re unaccustomed to, by bringing him food and material to repair the boat—and making contact with Juniper, ensconced in a local motel, to arrange for her to escape with him.

Of course their efforts bring them under suspicion from Senior and Mary Lee as well as Neckbone’s hound-dog Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), who uses a home-made helmet to dive for mussels in the river. They also require Ellis to contact reclusive neighbor Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), who lives on a houseboat on the shore opposite his, a father figure to Mud who might be willing to help him. And, of course, they bring the lads unwanted attention from the extra-legal posse of the revenge-seeking King (Joe Don Baker). And in his few free moments Ellis becomes infatuated with a pretty older schoolmate, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), whom he grows so devoted to that he even puts himself at risk to defend her honor against a senior boy—a subplot that mirrors Mud’s crazed dedication to Juniper, and with a similar outcome.

The myriad of character and incident in “Mud” makes for a narrative of epic length, and Nichols, working in tandem with editor Julie Monroe, doesn’t rush its development. But the film doesn’t seem to dawdle or plod. Like “Take Shelter” it holds one’s attention easily, though with a very different vibe. You’re left not with a sense of impatience over the stately pace, but with an appreciation of its richness.

And admiration for the performances. One has gotten to the point of expecting the unexpected from McConaughey, who doesn’t disappoint. His Mud is an irresistible rascal—a charismatic, drawling master of redneck rhetoric, but also a sort of down-home knight without any shining armor who nobly springs into action when Ellis’ life is endangered… But still the film couldn’t work without the extraordinary performance of Sheridan, who doesn’t miss a beat in conveying Ellis’ changes of mood with a degree of expertise that would be the envy of many actors twice his age. Lofland doesn’t have the opportunity to exhibit a similar range, but is wonderfully natural as a less complicated kid who’s also more practical, dickering for Mud’s pistol as the price for his help.

Juniper is a less rounded character than Mud or the boys, but Witherspoon gives her a sullied beauty. Shannon, so extraordinary as the apparently unhinged protagonist of “Take Shelter,” shines in the virtually cameo part of Galen, and Shepard brings his customary sense of rugged authority to Tom, while McKinnon and Paulson texture the parts of Ellis’ parents, the former in particular bringing a sense of wounded pride to his character. Baker effortlessly captures the quiet viciousness of King, and milks to the utmost his moment of sad resignation at the close.

The performances are matched by the technical side. Cinematographer Adam Stone gives a poetic cast to the Arkansas locations without overdoing it, and Richard A. Wright’s production design is a model of authenticity with a touch of the magical, while David Wingo’s score lends local color without ostentation.

There’s a sort of familial relationship between “Mud” and David Gordon Green’s sadly underappreciated “Undertow,” though Nichols’ film is far less dark and forbidding—in fact, despite the seriousness of many of its themes, there’s an overall sense of lightness to it. One can only hope that it receives the attention that Green’s film deserved but never got. In cinematic terms it’s a breath of air as fresh as the breeze one can almost feel in its lovely final shot of the sea.

IN THE HOUSE (DANS LA MAISON)

Producer: 
Director: 
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: 

A-

Alfred Hitchcock meets Douglas Sirk in Francois Ozon’s newest, a sly, stylish blend of melodrama and suspense that’s also a cunning commentary on the seductiveness and danger inherent in storytelling itself. “In the House” is a minor masterpiece, perhaps this talented French writer-director’s best film yet.

The focal characters are Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a literature teacher in a French high school, and Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a sixteen-year old sophomore in his class. Germain is a martinet who bemoans the ever-decreasing writing abilities of his students and official pronouncements that they nonetheless be treated with kid gloves. While grading a stack of abysmal papers about “how I spent my weekend,” he comes upon Claude’s—a strange but compelling piece about the boy’s fascination with the “perfect” family of his classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) and how he worms his way into their house by offering to help the struggling fellow with his math lessons. But his interest appears to be less in Rapha than in his parents, Rapha Sr. (Denis Menochet) and especially Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner). And the kid adds a postscript saying that the tale is “to be continued.”

Germain shares the paper with his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), whose partner in a struggling art gallery has just died and who now finds herself at the mercy of his heirs, a couple of profit-oriented twin sisters who could sell the place out from under her. She finds the story somewhat alarming, but her husband—as we learn, a frustrated writer himself—believes that Claude has real talent, and starts giving him private instruction that mostly consists of acidic critiques of further installments in his story. They detail the boy’s increasing involvement with Rapha and his parents, while the teacher even helps to strengthen Claude’s ties with them to keep the fascinating chapters coming—which, of course, he can then comment on, suggesting possible plot turns, all in the cause of nurturing an ability he himself lacks, of course.

The film juggles the various threads expertly, detailing Claude’s ever-growing attachment to his supposedly surrogate family—at least in his own writing—and Germain’s to the boy, to the extent of endangering his own job in a variety of ways, one of which involves treating young Rapha in a way that the boy considers humiliating. Claude’s obsession increases as well as he becomes intoxicated by Esther and learns about Rapha Senior’s job problems. And back in the teacher’s apartment, his wife is anxious over her own professional future while wondering whether her husband’s interest in his student is more than pedagogical.

Of course, the issue in Ozon’s canny script, played on Juan Mayorga’s play “The Boy in the Last Row,” is what’s real and what’s fiction. That’s a constant question as we watch reproductions of the incidents Claude recounts in his narrative—how much of them is reportage and how much sheer fantasy? And it’s accentuated by occasional appearances by Germain in those reproductions, commenting as he always does on their credibility and literary effectiveness. When that device first occurs it’s jarring, but at the same time absolutely right—because it forces the viewer to admit that Germain is a stand-in for us armchair voyeurs, just as James Stewart was in “Rear Window,” to which Ozon cheekily alludes in the film’s final shot. In that conclusion, “In the House” might not manage quite the trick that Germain says at one point is the proof of real art—to end in a way that’s completely unexpected yet absolutely necessary. But if the film turns out to be more clever sleight-of-hand than probing existential observation, it’s still wonderfully satisfying on that level.

As usual with Ozon, the film is visually impeccable, with production design by Arnaud de Moleron that distinguishes beautifully between the middle-class house of the Raphas and the coolly intellectual ambience of Germain’s apartment, with Jeanne’s upscale gallery and the school’s sterility also nicely captured in Jerome Almeras’ cinematography. In front of the camera, Luchini perfectly embodies the prissy, fastidious teacher, while Umhauer’s sardonic smile befits a youngster whose purpose goes deeper than anybody else suspects. With Thomas and Seigner ably representing the opposite ends of the feminine spectrum, the one a businesslike pro and the other a stay-at-home type, and Menochet and Ughetto equally effective as manipulated father and son, the cast never falters.

One might be tempted to think of “The Children’s Hour” while you’re watching “In the House.” But there’s a world of difference between a work like Lillian Hellman’s, with its earnest, almost hectoring tone, and Ozon’s exercise in exuberant artifice. The more suitable comparison is to the classic that’s alluded to in the script—the Arabian Nights, with its stories that turn and twist upon themselves and keep one wanting more. Ozon ends by reminding us that the world offers an endless variety of plots to choose from—and to savor. And as long as he keeps making films as enjoyable as this one, one can only hope he’ll tell us many more of them.