Just when I started to get down on 2013 in film.
Now, technically Mud may be considered a 2012 release - it debuted at Cannes in May of 2012, but was not widely released until the beginning of 2013. It was a smart choice to hold it off for this year, as 2012 offered much stiffer competition where critical acclaim is concerned -- and critics have loved Mud, which currently has the year's 11-th best score (98%) on RottenTomatoes. In fact, the Mud screener was the first DVD sent out to Academy Award voters.
The film is virtually flawless, and cements Jeff Nichols among the best young directors in Hollywood. His other films (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter) have some of the same tone, and he reminds me of a visual Cormac McCarthy. The abrupt violence, the pacing, and the gritty tone of his movies reeks of high literature, and Mud is his best film so far - a fine director operating at the very pinnacle of the art.
Unlike McCarthy, the film operates on more than a depressingly real level - as frustrating and close as the story is, there is a higher purpose - the story is about love. Ellis (a brilliant Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone discover a man (McConaughey) who calls himself Mud on the shores of rural Deep South, USA. As Mud strains to reunite with his own forbidden love, Ellis, 14, is coming to terms with girls in his own right while watching his parents grow distant.
The film doubles as a Bildungsroman ('coming-of-age') story for Ellis, as he discovers what love is, what the point of love is, and what it means to be a man.
Story: 5/5 - The plot does its best to remain subtle while presenting very clear, classic themes. Love. Redemption. Maturation. Much like a McCarthy novel, the story is very plain, very real, and very, for lack of a better word, American.
Writing: 5/5 - This is how people talk in real life. There was not a single instance of a character saying something to explain something to the audience or further the plot. Again, McCarthy - these people are defined by their actions, and the story being told is the story of what they do - what they say is academic. That being said, there is some absolutely thrilling dialogue, and McConaughey is given some terrific moments to shine:
Acting: 5/5 - Matthew McConaughey deserves Oscar buzz for his performance, and I think he will get it. From the movies I have seen in 2013, it is he and Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips) against the field. Tye Sheridan, all of 15 at the time of filming, deserves talk as well (and not just for MTV 'best kiss' awards). The supporting cast all stands out: Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire, Man of Steel), Sam Shepard (The Assassination of Jesse James), and Ray McKinnon (Deadwood) were all perfect casting choices and all do their jobs perfectly.
Aesthetics: 5/5 - Adam Stone as cinematographer is good, not great, as he has been in Nichols's past work. The reason I thought the aesthetic of the film was perfect was how everything came together to create a flawless atmosphere. The sets, the costumes, the photography, the soundtrack - when combined with the characters and the actors' abilities it creates a flawlessly real time and place. I've never been anywhere in the States between Raleigh and Orlando (not counting Hartsfield), but I grew up in a similarly rural, economically-depressed, fuck-you-government area, and I have to say that the film triggered some kind of perverse nostalgia. It's Norman Rockwell, it's John Updike, it's Nelson Algren - the film is a Polaroid of a culture, and it accomplishes this with authority.
Final Score: 100% - I couldn't find a flaw in this movie. It's a drama, of course, so it's not for everyone - but if you like and/or appreciate film, this is the must-see movie of the year so far.