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Mini Review: Mud (2013)

Mud #1

by Steve Habrat

Over the years, actor Matthew McConaughey became known as the guy who starred in all those fuzzy romantic comedies that your mother and girlfriend loved. Every so often, he’d jump into a disposable action movie like Reign of Fire or Sahara, or surprise you with his dark turn in the underrated horror movie Frailty, but you couldn’t help but peg him as that romantic comedy dude who was always chasing around Kate Hudson or Sarah Jessica Parker. Recently, McConaughey has broken from his usual roles and started accepting beefier parts that really showcase his talents as an actor. One of these roles would be the title character in director Jeff Nichols’s critically acclaimed drama Mud, which debuted a Cannes in 2012 and then enjoyed a quiet limited release in 2013. Hailed as one of the standouts of 2013, Mud is a surprisingly candid coming-of-age drama that features strong emotional turns from McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, an actress that has kept a relatively low profile since her Academy Award winning role in Walk the Line. While Mud is certainly a down-to-earth Southern tale about love found and love lost, the film feels a bit too familiar in places, something that ultimately holds it back from tru greatness..

Mud introduces us to Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two preteens battling boredom in De Witt, Arkansas. One day, Neckbone takes Ellis out to an island on the Mississippi River where he has discovered a rickety boat stuck high up in a tree. Ellis and Neckbone intend to make their discovery a new hangout location, but they are shocked when they discover that there happens to be a man living in the boat. The man introduces himself as Mud (played by Matthew McConaughey), a shaggy drifter who claims to be hiding out on the island and in desperate need of some food. Mud tells the boys that if they’ll bring him so food, he’ll allow the boys to have the boat when he leaves the island. Ellis and Neckbone agree to help the mystery man out, but they soon learn from police department that Mud is, in fact, a fugitive on the run from the law. When the boys return to the island, they learn that Mud killed a man for severely injuring his girlfriend, Juniper (played by Reese Witherspoon). Mud explains that he is waiting to be reunited with Juniper and that he is on the island to avoid a slew of bounty hunters that are looking for him. Fascinated by Mud’s story, the boys decide to help Mud in his quest to be reunited for Juniper, but soon, the bounty hunters arrive looking to make Mud pay for what he has done.

Mud #2

While the tale of the shaggy-haired outlaw waiting for his ladylove is the surface story of Mud, the film’s true story belongs to the kids. A good majority of the film follows Ellis as he experiences his first love and watches his home life fall apart. We catch glimpses of his parents duking it out with each other at the kitchen table as Ellis sneaks away to meet up with Neckbone. He spies on them for only a moment before fleeing off to that island to hide from the world inside that tree boat. In town, he crushes on an older girl, May Pearl (played by Bonnie Sturdivant), who may not be taking their developing relationship as seriously as Ellis takes it. Nichols, who also wrote the film, isn’t shy about telling Ellis’s story in a realistic manner, addressing the fears of change and the sting of heartbreak in a serious tone. Despite not mincing words, this side of Mud is extremely gentle. It’s never cold-hearted or cynical, even when things seem to be at their lowest for poor Ellis and Mud. The darker side of the story manifests in Mud’s looming confrontation with the bounty hunters. They beat Juniper in the hopes of learning Mud’s whereabouts and they strike in a swarm to guarantee that our outlaw hero has absolutely no chance of escape. This certainly ups the sense of dread and it does make us fear for Mud’s safety as the final confrontation nears.

The main attraction of Mud is the undoubtedly performances, especially the ones from McConaughey and Witherspoon. McConaughey is absolutely fantastic as the lovesick outlaw with a heart of gold. The relationship he develops with Ellis is incredibly sweet, sparking hope in the young boys eyes and igniting a sense of adventure that allows him to escape his rocky home life. Witherspoon’s Juniper is a flirty free spirit who questions her affection for the marooned Mud. Sheridan is the film’s heart and soul as Ellis, a seemingly tough teen with a soft center. Lofland plays it even rougher and tougher as Neckbone, a foul-mouthed teen who means well enough. Also present are Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship, Ellis’s mysterious neighbor who has ties to Mud and ends up being an essential ally in his fight to stay alive. Nichols regular Michael Shannon gives a small but sweet performance as Galen, Neckbone’s scuba-diving uncle. Overall, while it certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel and it does end up feeling quite a bit like several other rundown dramas of recent memory, Mud is still a sensitive and ultimately optimistic drama bustling with performances that are alive with everyday emotion.

Grade: B

Mud is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Out of the Furnace (2013)

Out of the Furnace #1

by Steve Habrat

Over the past few years, it seems that it has become routine for Hollywood to release one or two rundown drama-thrillers a year that feature blue collar characters having it out with one another in a gasping American neighborhood on the verge of total collapse. We’ve seen it in films like Winter’s Bone, The Fighter, The Beasts of Southern Wild, and Killing Them Softly, all of which relished immersing audiences in family squabbling, filth, decay, and boarded up structures. This year we have director Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, another downbeat family-drama/revenge-thriller set against a dying industrial town in Pennsylvania. While Out of the Furnace may not necessarily win any points for originality (this is definitely a seen-it-all-before exercise), Cooper’s Rust Belt tale of revenge is comprised of heart pounding backwoods atmosphere, bare-knuckle brutality, and gripping melodrama guaranteed to make that hour and fifty minute runtime fly by in a flash. It also features enough A-list talent to fuel a dozen Oscar bait movies, with stars Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Shepard all bringing the true grit required to allow a film like this to really take shape.

Out of the Furnace introduces us to Russell Baze (played by Christian Bale), a steel mill worker who slaves away taking double shifts to help out his brother, Rodney (played by Casey Affleck), a war veteran struggling to adapt to normal life after several tours of duty in Iraq. Despite some differences, Russell and Rodney still band together to look after their terminally ill father, who seems to be getting worse by the day. One evening, Russell is driving home from a local bar when he strikes a car and kills the occupants inside. Russell is sent away to prison for some time, but when he emerges, he realizes that his life hasn’t gotten any easier. As he tries to come to terms with the passing of his father and his break-up with his beautiful girlfriend, Lena (played by Zoe Saldana), Russell learns that Rodney has become involved with bare-knuckle boxing. Concerned for his safety, Russell attempts to persuade Rodney to leave bare-knuckle boxing behind and come work with him at the steel mill. Refusing to listen to his brother, Rodney demands that local gangster John Petty (played by Willem Dafoe) get him fights that are run by Harlan DeGroat (played by Woody Harrelson), an extremely dangerous backwoods thug who has a grudge against Petty. After Rodney mysteriously disappears at the hands of DeGroat, Russell takes the law into his own hands and sets out to find his brother before it’s too late.

While there are several elements borrowed from other films and there is a slight predictability to it, Out of the Furnace takes great care in really making both its story and its characters seem as genuine as possible. Russell struggles to find the motivation to pull himself from the comfort of Lena’s arms to work a double at the sweaty steel mill. With circles under his eyes and his dreams smothered under protective gear, he keeps a dignified poise as he tries desperately to keep his brother on the right track. This proves challenging when Rodney retaliates with the horrors he saw in Iraq (some of the stories he shares are deeply disturbing), which really allow us a clear understanding as to why it is so difficult for him to find his place in normal society. Russell’s composure remains in tact when he is involved in that gruesome car accident, which places him behind bars and at the mercy of vicious inmates for some time. When he finally gets out, things have gone from bad to worse, as he grapples with the loss of his father, his break up, and the horrors of that terrible accident. Despite his weary exasperation, when he finally has to confront the demons that claim his brother, there are no exaggerations in the actions taken. The frustration with local authorities and his determination to not loose his brother open a door for careful plotting that leads up to a low-key final showdown with the devil himself that is shockingly convincing.

Out of the Furnace #2

While Bale makes Russell’s soft-spoken composure, self-assurance, and deteriorating compliance in the face of tragedy and failure electrifying cinema, it is Harrelson’s sadistic Harlan DeGroat that is ultimately in charge of Out of the Furnace. With a crack-rock smile and zero patience, DeGroat relishes his rotten existence, proudly declaring that he “has a problem with everybody.” He pyshically and psychologically bullies anyone and everyone for the smallest things, proudly beating up his girlfriend at a drive-in and then viciously attacking a man who tries to intervene. It’s an unforgettably evil performance from Harrelson, who completely fills out DeGroat’s filthy-dirty skin. Affleck is perfectly suited for Rodney, a haunted soldier who just can’t seem to get his life together. He comes home with his face pounded into oblivion and sips liquor to make the pain go away. He’s on a crash course, and his fate is tragically foreseeable. Dafoe is fantastic as John Petty, a small time thug in over his head with the wrong people. He’s far from a hard-ass gangster, and when the people he has wronged come calling, the quiver in his voice will have your stomach in a knot. Saldana is given a small but pivotal role as Lena, Russell’s one and only escape from his daily grind. Forest Whitaker is present as Chief Wesley Barnes, a gravel-voiced cop who stole Lena away from Russell. His strained relationship with Russell is put to the test when he attempts to get to the bottom of Rodney’s disappearance. Sam Shepard also stops by as Gerald Baze, Russell and Rodney’s uncle who joins Russell in his quest to track down his brother.

Considering that Out of the Furnace draws from other intense works of cinema, the film dishes out plenty of scenes drenched in blood and violence. The bare-knuckle boxing scenes are difficult to watch, as each punch thrown isn’t accompanied with an over-the-top sound effect to embellish the force of the blow. The beatings are savage and the violence is shown in up-close-and-personal detail, especially one character taking a bullet to the head. We also can’t forget Rodney’s war stories, which will certainly repulse and remind us all of the horrors of war. Equally disturbing is a trip to a rundown crack house hidden in the dense hills. We glimpse junkies sprawled across ripped sofas, sucking on crack pipes and shooting heroine in between their toes. Overall, while the lack of originality will hold the film back this awards season, Out of the Furnace is still a riveting, emotional, and uncompromising backwoods drama/thriller. It makes great use of its backdrop, it’s appropriately moody, and it’s comprised of actors who take familiar characters and really give them distinctive life. It’s capped off with an abrupt finale that is welcomingly blunt and haunting.

Grade: A-