Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/26/13 11:31:12

"Smoker On The Water"
3 stars (Just Average)

On the basis of his first two films, the indie dramas "Shotgun Stories" and "Take Shelter," writer-director Jeff Nichols has quickly become one of the most talked-about up-and-coming filmmakers of recent years and with good reason--his films have combined compelling narratives and powerful performances into works that are both wholly original and wholly fascinating to behold.. With his third effort, "Mud," he has made his most elaborate work to date but it is also the wobbliest from a dramatic standpoint as any number of brilliant elements wind up uncomfortably rubbing shoulders with a few narrative lapses, one questionable casting decision and a highly dubious third act that pretty much sabotages everything that has gone before it.

Set in a remote Arkansas backwater, the film opens as a kid named Ellis (Tye Sheridan) goes off with his best pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) to nearby island to check out a boat that has been deposited in the treetops after a recent storm. Upon investigation, it turns out the boat is being inhabited by a man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a charming stranger who asks them to bring him food while filling their heads with romantic notions of his attempts to reunite with long-lost love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Bored with their everyday existence, the two are only too happy to help Mud fix up the boat so that he can leave with Juniper offer their services in exchange for Mud's gun but before long, Ellis begins to realize that Mud is wanted by both the police and a group of bounty hunters. Nevertheless, he continues to idealize Mud, especially in comparison to his own troubled family but it is only a matter of time before he discovers the truth about Mud and disillusionment sets in.

Working for the first time with a presumably decent budget and a name cast (that also includes the likes of Sarah Paulson, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker and Michael Shannon, who starred in his two previous films), Jeff Nichols has come up with a story that, despite its seemingly simple premise, is far more sprawling and elaborate than anything that he has attempted before and for a while, it seems as if he is up to the task. The story may be yet another coming-of-age tale but he finds a few new angles to approach it from and the central relationship that develops between newcomer Sheridan and McConaughey (in yet another standout role) is fascinating. However, the screenplay feels like a rough draft that didn't get the necessary polishing because there are far too many subplots (such as the rocky relationship of Ellis' parents, Ellis' infatuation with an older classmate, the misadventures of the local oyster diver played by Shannon and the mysterious relationship between Mud and the local swamp rat played by Shepard) that go absolutely nowhere.

Among the other problems, the pacing is also a little too slack for its own good and at 130 minutes, it overstays its welcome by a good half-hour or so. As the woman who has dominated Mud's life, Reese Witherspoon is wildly miscast and sticks out like a sore thumb every time she appears on the screen. And while I will not go into too much detail regarding the ending, I will say that it is a mess of gunfire, snakebites and poorly motivated dramatic revelations that feels as if it was slapped together at the last second when Nichols couldn't conceive of a more dramatically satisfying way of wrapping up his story.

And yet, when "Mud" is firing on all cylinders--which is roughly half the time--it is often mesmerizing and confirms that Jeff Nichols is a talent to be reckoned with. This may be the least successful of his film to date but even at its worst, it is still more interesting than an lot of the other movies out there right now. Perhaps now that he has stumbled a bit, he will learn from his mistakes--which, to be fair, are borne more out of ambition than laziness--and his next project will be the kind of brilliant work that he is clearly capable of producing.

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