Here’s Mud in Your Eye

Mud3screamsgrayAt last, the talented but ever-underutilized Matthew McConaughey has found material worthy of him in Mud, the new feature from Jeff Nichols, director of the excellent Shotgun Stories.

At its heart, the movie is about desire. McConaughey plays Mud, a man on the run. He’s killed a man, killed for love. And now he’s bound and determined to get back to the woman he loves and run away with her.

Maybe most movies are about desire, but most movies fail miserably at depicting it. It’s too often a given. The hero and the heroine get together for reasons that never really register onscreen. Here it’s as if every cell in Mud’s body is leaning toward the woman he loves. You feel it in every anxious glance. His life isn’t worth living without her.

Unless it’s Member of the Wedding or To Kill a Mockingbird, I avoid movies with child actors as leads. Heck, I run screaming into the hills. But in the case of Mud, I have to say that Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone do a better job than most adult actors in most other movies. The incredible thing is, you can’t see them acting. They aren’t smart-alecky know-it-alls or wise-beyond-their-years mini-philosophers. They’re kids, kids who have a hard time distinguishing between what they should and shouldn’t believe.

The always excellent Ray McKinnon plays Ellis’s father, a man whose barely withheld frustrations sometimes seem about to boil over into violence but never do. That in itself is an achievement—a movie about the South that doesn’t paint its characters as idiots, racists, or grotesques of one stripe or another.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Michael Shannon’s excellent performance as Neckbone’s laid-back uncle. Shannon made such an indelible appearance in Jeff Nichols’s first movie, Shotgun Stories, and then promptly got cast in a number of big-budget Hollywood projects that had him not so much acting as screaming in various volumes. His performance in Boardwalk Empire is hard to take. And see the trailer for Man of Steel as an example of his adherence to the Al Pacino School of Acting.

Lately, every time I’ve seen Sam Shepard in a small part in a movie, he’s seemed pissed-off that he has to be there. But here he does his best acting in a long time. It’s a secondary role but an important one, as Mud’s longtime friend and mentor. He’s an actor whose silences speak volumes.

And then, of course, there’s McConaughey, who always plays the bad boy of one kind or another. But here his bad boy has a sharper edge. He’s driven by love, and you don’t know what he might do next. It’s easily his best performance ever.

And though she isn’t on-screen a great deal, Reese Witherspoon does more acting in Mud than she’s been asked to do in a host of other movies. And she does most of it between the lines. She plays the white trash beauty who is the object of Mud’s desire. It’s a measure of the quality of her acting that she makes you feel both anger and sympathy for her, sometimes at the same moment.

Mud is essentially a southern retelling of Dickens’s Great Expectations, with Mud as Magwitch, though that may be where the similarities end.  It’s fascinating to me that Mud is a straightforward, realistic movie, and yet you’re never sure what will happen next. It’s full of suspense. Compare it, for instance, to After Earth. Set in the distant future, and partly in outer space, you’d think that you’d never know what will happen next. But in fact, it’s completely predictable. It doesn’t make a move you couldn’t have predicted  two days before you went to the theater. I saw After Earth two days ago, and I forgot all about it as soon as the lights went up. I saw Mud two months ago, and I’m still thinking about it. That’s good movie-making.

Mud, a fine movie and not to be missed.


Safe as Houses?

Safe House has lots of things going for it: excellent actors, especially Denzel Washington, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Shepard. And Ryan Reynolds does a convincing turn as fairly-innocent-guy-in-over-his-head. Rubén Blades and Joel Kinnaman (the creepy partner from AMC’s The Killing) do excellent work in small roles. Set in the sun-bleached streets of Capetown, South Africa, the movie has a fresh look, too.

But that’s about all it’s got going for it.

I expected the cinematic version of time-release testosterone, but every move is so predictable that The Sleeper had a good long nap. And when she woke up, she hadn’t really missed all that much. Me, I spent much of the movie wishing I were watching a rerun of Sky1’s Strike Back.

Denzel plays a notorious and gifted rogue spy named Tobin Frost (that’s right, Jack’s evil twin). Frost has something all the good guys and bad guys want. What is it? Does it really matter? The most interesting element in the movie is the way he transports it—in a capsule under his skin, suggesting all kinds of interesting scenes that never made it into the movie (“Is it here? Or over here? Or perhaps right . . . here!”). He extracts the capsule so soon after injecting it that you wonder why he bothered in the first place.

Ryan Reynolds is Matt Weston, an over-qualified CIA functionary whose job is to oversee a safe house in case it should ever be needed. Then Denzel’s character is brought in, and all h-e-double-hockey-sticks breaks out.

Tobin Frost is the opposite of George Smiley, the plodder who seems to some of his colleagues to be barely able to keep up with events. Denzel’s character is like a chessmaster who sees thirty moves ahead. He’s amused by it all, even—and maybe especially—when the guns and bombs start going off. At one point, he even says, “I like games.” Denzel’s always fun to watch, and never moreso than in the first half of this movie, where he rearranges the furniture inside Weston’s head. But when the shooting starts, Safe House plays out like a hundred others movies: gun fight, car chase, exposition, gun fight, foot chase, exposition . . .

And oddly, for a movie that’s mostly chase scenes and gun fights, it all feels fairly tame. That’s because it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. But it’s also because of the way it’s filmed. Much of the movie is shot with a narrow depth of field, with lots of close-ups of bloody, sweaty faces against blurred backgrounds. And most of it’s shot in the jitter-cam style. The goal is to ratchet up the tension. But frankly, if you used this style to film two octogenarians having tea, the resulting footage would look just as tense.

The plot—like so many other thrillers of recent vintage—is recycled from Three Days of the Condor. Yes, once again we learn that the most dangerous enemy is within. And once again we see a talented amateur (or quasi-professional) take on a shadowy enemy that may or may not be the very people he works for. And what happens to the macguffin in Safe House exactly reflects what happens to it in the much edgier Condor.

In case there’s any chance we’ll miss the theme, it’s summed up in blunt-object lines like “Everyone betrays everyone” and “You do what you have to do” and “They don’t want the truth anymore. Keeps ’em up at nights.”

Remember that wonderful speech near the end of Condor, when Max Von Sydow’s character gives Robert Redford’s character a warning:

It would happen this way: you may be walking one day, maybe the first sunny day of the spring . . . and a car will slow beside you, and a door will open. And someone you know—perhaps even trust—will get out of the car and he will smile—a becoming smile
 . . .

Now that’s writin’!

Here’s a thought: why not go back to the days when movies were made by writers, directors, and actors instead of by stunt arrangers, armorers, and cgi techs?

P.S. Has anyone else noticed that recent action movies and thrillers have changed the sound effect for handguns? A Glock is essentially made of plastic, but when a movie Glock goes off, you hear the snap-and-clang of what sounds like a 50-caliber machine gun.