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BEFORE MIDNIGHT

Like a fiction version of Michael Apted’s “Up” documentaries, Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy follows characters as they grow over the years, becoming older but perhaps not wiser. In “Before Sunrise” (1995) he introduced American Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an aspiring writer, and French Celine (Julie Delpy), a student, as the two met on a train and spent an evening in Vienna, talking through the night as they walked through the city and then went their separate ways, promising to see one another again. But they didn’t reconnect until nine years later, in “Before Sunset” (2004), as Jesse stopped in Paris during a book tour, promoting a novel based on his Viennese encounter with Celine and, now an environmental activist, she came to the event. Though married with a son, he was obviously unfulfilled, and their second long evening renewed the old sparks. Now, in “Before Midnight,” once again set nine years later, they’re a couple with two young daughters, living in France but vacationing for the summer in Greece with an elderly writer and his family. And though the setting seems like paradise, the relationship shows the on-and-off quality of marriages that swing between affection and antagonism.

Like the two previous films, this one has a beautiful locale to play with but is basically a long conversation. And it’s not a terribly happy one. Jesse, after seeing his son—who’s spent the summer with them—off at the airport for the return trip to his still furious ex-wife, drives back to the villa with Celine, and they bicker about the future. She’s frustrated in her work but thinking about taking a job that might be even more problematic. He raises the question about their possibly moving back to the States to be closer to his son. Nothing is resolved, but the episode shows her quickness to anger, his resort to sarcasm, and the propensity for defensiveness in them both.

The second act consists of a lunch at their host’s seaside estate with another middle-aged couple, along with a young relative of the writer and his girlfriend and an older woman. The conversation turns on male-female relationships, careening from jocular observations to poignant reminiscences of lost loves. Then the film enters its third act as Jesse and Celine find themselves in a hotel, where their friends have arranged for them to stay alone for a night. Here their conversation begins as an affable return to the musings of the previous two films, but soon degenerates into an extended argument in which each brings up long-standing complaints about the other and they wind up apart, though the final scene suggests at least a temporary rapprochement.

“Before Midnight” was written by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy, and the dialogue has the sharpness to be expected of well-educated, intellectual people without becoming pompous or unrealistically affected. It helps, of course, that it’s being delivered by Hawke and Delpy, who by now play off one another like tennis pros familiar with each other’s game and eager to exploit the knowledge. And that it’s directed by Linklater, who, together with cinematographer Christos Voudouris, records it all in a way that makes use of supple camera moves while recognizing the value of stabilizing static shots and doesn’t indulge in artsy touches for their own sake. The result is a film that feels naturalistic but not bland.

You don’t need to have seen “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” in order to find “Before Midnight” perceptive and rewarding, but your appreciation of it will be immeasurably enriched by familiarity with them, because it represents the conclusion of a trilogy that, over the space of eighteen years, has subtly depicted the birth, growth and maturation of a man-woman relationship with its inevitable vacillations between affection, sacrifice, self-concern and acrimony. Consider the totality something like a sibling to Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage,” with this installment a descendent of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”—but not really like either. The “Before” films really are sui generis, exceptional for that reason and many others.

MUD

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.