MUD (2013, Jeff Nichols): 7/10
There’s a scene 2/3 of the way through MUD where Joe Don Baker takes his gang of stock Southern thugs into a motel room for a circle prayer, and what’s jarring about it isn’t the oddball tone of them praying for the title character’s death — it’s that it’s the first scene in over an hour that isn’t shown from the lead character’s point of view. Up until then, Ellis had been in every scene. But now, Nichols just randomly decides to throw that device out for a cheap piece of unnecessary exposition.
This is symptomatic of one of the film’s few but obvious flaws. I’d add to that a very sketchy idea of what its female characters think and want. Witherspoon is perfectly fine as Juniper, but Nichols sells her short by just having her behave in ways that fit what he wants to say about love and relationships as opposed to how she might act. Furthermore, Ellis’s first crush Mae Pearl does the same types of things but is a little more realistic given her age and limited exposure to the younger Ellis.
Other problems I had with this film lie in the direction. I don’t think Nichols is much of visual filmmaker — even when he takes great pains to explore a location, his compositions are lazy and flat (given that the film is in 2.35:1, you’d think he could take advantage — but no, lots of headroom, dead space in the wings, and workmanlike camera movement).
I realize this has been a pretty negative review so far for a film I’m recommending with a 7/10, but it’s just because the strengths are so obvious and almost not worth saying anything more about: Tye Sheridan is outstanding in a lead role that requires an ungodly amount of nuance for a 14 year-old character, and he pulls it off like a pro. McConaughey is also quite good, somehow managing to get swallowed up in the grime of his creepy outlaw while maintaining his star wattage in spades. The emotion of the story builds and builds (with clumsy detours for comic relief with the Michael Shannon character) until in the final act you can’t help but get choked up. This is the most effective narrative Nichols has told among his three films, and the most satisfying overall, but until he figures out what to do with the camera (other than sit there to capture great acting) and can fix some of his writing shortcomings, I’m not sure he’s any kind of great filmmaker or anything.