I recently saw a couple of films back-to-back that couldn’t have been more different (I’m already in love with being in the center of the movie universe here in L. A.). Unless you’re hiding under a rock, you know the latest installment of the Iron Man franchise is currently in theaters. You might be less familiar with an astronomically smaller independent film starring Matthew McCaughnahey called Mud.
Like its predecessors, Iron Man 3 hits all the high notes thanks to swift directing, strong writing, and solid performances from all returning cast members like Robert Downey, Jr., Don Cheadle, Jon Favreau, and Gwyneth Paltrow. But it is Sir Ben Kingsley who steals the show as new villain Mandarin. Much like Iron Man 2, this version invokes a would-be co-worker and Stark devotee, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), whom Tony spurned years ago, coming back to haunt him as a competitor and terrorist. SPOILER: The Mandarin is a media front and, as such, a commentary on our need for a devil…and a quirky one at that. END SPOILER What did Osama bin Laden supposedly have stock-piled in his compound? All the while, we ignore or completely miss, the true villain, those media and financial conglomerates who act as global puppeteers to make greater stacks of cash.
Iron Man 3 is equal parts comic book prophesy (in the sense of humorously exposing the powers that be) and “spiritual commentary.” Tony continues to create monsters through his reckless willingness to step over anyone that gets in his way. His technology is a pandora’s box that will just never close. Of course, with repeated allusions to The Avengers, there are a host of much more powerful villains lurking in the far reaches of outer space that could strike at any moment. If the previous installments of the franchise have Tony in physical danger (and he’s in quite a bit of it here too), he’s at a spiritual and emotional crossroads in this latest film. If shrapnel was gravitating towards his heart in Iron Man 2, anxiety and panic attacks bring him to his knees now and have him seeking out therapy as well, which he humorously finds from an unlikely source.
Though less explicitly so, Mud works as a third installment of sorts. Writer/director Jeff Nichols is one of the most talented and consistent filmmakers working today (and word is he’s scheduled to turn these talents to the sic-fi genre soon). Mud follows his two other critically-acclaimed indies, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. It helps immensely that Michael Shannon has had roles in all three.
Mud is a coming of age story that focuses on two teenage boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), growing up in a small Arkansas town along the Mississippi River. They find a boat stuck in a tree on an island in the middle of the river and want to claim it as their hideout. Unfortunately, someone, Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has already set up residence there. He’s waiting for his “girlfriend,” Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to arrive, but we know he’s also on the run from the law. The boys, for competing reasons, agree to help Mud retrieve and repair the boat. Neckbone wants Mud’s pistol, while Ellis wants to assist in reuniting the star-crossed lovers.
Tye Sheridan as Ellis is the heart of the film, which is all the more impressive in light of phenomenal performances all around. Ellis’ coming-of-age is built around his observations of two relationships and his own first failure at love. His parents, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) and Senior (Ray McKinnon), are going through a fairly rough patch in their marriage. Mud and Juniper are trying (unequally) to get back together, and his own high school crush, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), publicly embarrasses him. Even though it’s emotionally painful to watch fall apart before our eyes, Ellis’ earnest belief in love and soul-mates is inspiring nonetheless.
It’s clear, three feature films in, that Nichols just gets the South. Nothing’s ever cliched in his films, and their production design and cinematography capture remote places with subtle perfection. Nichols consistently explores pockets of the country that may seem other-worldly to many viewers while not letting those surface differences distract from the shared humanity and experiences of its inhabitants. Mud would make great pairing with Beasts of the Southern Wild. I know many people who had difficulty approaching Beasts because the world it presented was so completely foreign, as was the aesthetic of the film. Given the more direct way(s) in which Nichols tells his tory, Mud is a more accessible film, and one that draws viewers in from the start and keeps them close throughout its nerve-wrenching duration. It’ll easily be one of the best films of the year.
Iron Man 3 (130 mins) is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief suggestive content and is in theaters everywhere.
Mud (130 mins) is rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking and is in considerably fewer theaters.