Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"Dallas Buyers Club" and "Mud" Justify the McConaissaince

It's that damn McConaughey. He's so hot right now!
Considering Matthew McConaughey’s recent Oscar win, the fervor surrounding True Detective and his lead part in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming film, it’s apparent that we are in the eye of the McConaissaince. As a result, this seems a perfect time to finally put together some thoughts on Dallas Buyers Club and Mud, two 2013 entries I enjoyed quite a bit but never got around to reviewing. I figure it's definitely a good idea to strike before the McConalash sets in.

As a long-time McConaughey defender, I've enjoyed every minute of his comeback. It’s been funny to see the reactions of so many people who had previously written him off solely based on a few paycheck gigs in hollow romantic comedies. Guy always had screen presence to burn, and although he’s limited in some ways by an unshakable accent, he actually operates within a pretty wide range.

At the Oscars, Ellen joked that McConaughey is dirty pretty, but that’s actually an accurate description of his general movie persona. He possesses an oily magnetism that naturally suggests a seedy slickster or a morally compromised antihero, but then there’s the likable swagger and the intense vulnerability bubbling under the surface. He’s sort of a new age Michael Douglas, albeit with a six pack and a Texas twang.

McConaughey deviates from that wheelhouse occasionally (i.e. ContactAmistad and The Wedding Planner), but like many good actors, he’s found his greatest success by playing into and off of his stock archetype. That assessment is certainly true of Dallas Buyers Club and Mud.

Dallas Buyers Club is a biopic about Ron Woodroof, a homophobic, womanizing good old boy who contracted AIDS in the early ’80s back when it was largely looked at as a gay disease. When Ron realizes the U.S. medical system and the ass-backwards FDA can’t help him, he decides to go south of the border to gain access to unapproved drugs. Soon, with the help of a transvestite partner named Rayon (Jared Leto), he begins smuggling the drugs into America and selling them to fellow AIDS sufferers as part of a monthly membership called the Dallas Buyers Club.

Leto and McConaughey lost a lot of weight for Dallas Buyers Club.
It’s interesting to me that this film languished so long in developmental limbo, because, beyond the topic of AIDS, it’s basically a conventional David vs. Goliath movie, one I suspect most would enjoy if they could get past their discomfort with what they perceive as “gay themes.” The film casts a critical eye on the FDA for being in bed with Big Pharmaceutical Companies to the detriment of the public, but it’s mostly an inspirational character piece about personal growth, redemption and the strength of the human spirit. A large part of the narrative hangs on the growing friendship that develops between Ron and Rayon, and it is all reminiscence of the similarly affecting dynamic Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks shared in Philadelphia.

The film starts like a bat out of hell and then gets into a comfortable rhythm before basically petering out. There’s a structural imbalance to the film, but it is buoyed by an excellent cast that includes winning support from Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn and Griffin Dunn. McConaughey and Leto both won Oscars for their transformative performances, and while I probably wouldn't have gone with either of them in the stacked year that was 2013, the awards are well deserved. Leto does about everything he can to make Rayon into more than a walking plot device, and McConaughey owns the screen. I know some were annoyed McConaughey rode his comeback story to a victory on Oscar night, particularly at the expense of Leonardo DiCaprio, but this performance feels more charged and awards worthy than those by recent winners like Colin Firth and Jean Dujardin.

Although Dallas Buyers Club received the bulk of the attention, Mud is actually the more interesting McConaughey film to be released last year. Steeped in southern lore and magical realism and populated by a community of river dwellers, Mud instantly recalls last year’s excellent Beasts of the Southern Wild, but it is largely a homage to the works of Mark Twain. There are stand-ins for Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Jim, and there’s even a character named Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), which the internet tells me is the name of the man who inspired Huck Finn. The film even has the feel of classic American literature due to its poetic atmosphere, thematic parallels and rampant symbolism (one could easily imagine a term paper on the significance of the titular character’s shirt or the evocative image of a boat lodged high in a tree).

McConaughey plays Mud, a fugitive wanted for murder and hiding out in the aforementioned boat on a deserted island in the Mississippi River. When Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Loffland), two tween boys from Arkansas, encounter him on an exploratory adventure, Mud makes them a deal. If they’ll bring him food and help him make contact with his long lost love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), he’ll gift them his pistol and grant them the squatter’s rights to the boat. Neckbone is intrigued by the pistol, while Ellis is mostly captivated by the romance of it all.

Ellis takes center stage for much of the story, and the film is ultimately a fable about a boy coming to grips with the mad complexities of love. He’s struggling with both the dissolution of his parents’ marriage and his infatuation with an older girl, and in Mud he seems to a have found a kindred romantic soul. He holds out hope that the connection between Mud and Juniper can confirm his faith in love, which can often seem like a cruel joke in the way it melds euphoria with abject disappointment.

The three lead characters of Mud would fit right into a Twain novel.
There’s a lot going on in the film, and writer/director Jeff Nichols juggles most of it very well. While we see the entirety of Ellis’ relationship with his crush, the dynamic between his parents (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) is fragmented and the one between Mud and Juniper isn't on screen at all. We see what Ellis sees and understand as he understands, and it speaks to the mastery of what Nichols has done that confusing character motivations on the part of some of the adults (especially the women) come into sharp focus as the film reaches its conclusion.

If there’s a misstep, it’s in the inclusion of a subplot involving Neckbone’s uncle. While it allows Nichols regular Michael Shannon to log some screen time, the whole thing feels inconsequential and adds unnecessary bloat to a film that would've been well served by cleaving off 10 minutes.

The below the line aspects are all top notch, and there’s some really great and subtle acting on display here. Both kids give emotive lived-in performances, and Witherspoon does well with a tricky role, striking the right balance as a woman intrigued by grand romanticism, but ultimately reticent and skeptical. And as was the case in Out of the Furnace (reviewed here), Shepard gets to be an old bad ass, but this time he gets a bit more of an opportunity to flex his acting muscles.

As for McConaughey, I’d argue that outside of Rust Cole, this is the greatest performances he’s ever given. There are so many seemingly conflicting things to play here – hope, regret, deception, honor, disgrace, warmth, danger, desperation –and he does it all with such nuance, taking what is a pretty mythical character and grounding him in palpable reality. Nichols has said he wrote the role with McConaughey in mind, and that’s easy to believe. Mud is an excellent showcase for McConaughey’s charisma and chops, and the film even contains a meta joke about being shirtless that is somehow weaved into the fabric of the character.

Like McConaughey’s performance, Mud has an organic quality to it that makes it easy to overlook as merely good at first. But then it lingers in the mind, growing in stature the more you ruminate on it. There’s so much to love here – the themes, the tone, the performances, the cinematography, the music, the iconography. This film is literally overflowing with riches. My favorite takeaway was the shootout toward the end of the picture, a set piece that overcomes its clich├ęd nature through sheer excellence in staging and visceral impact. When a coming-of-age drama succeeds on so many levels that it even contains my favorite action scene of the year – well, that’s pretty neat.

Dallas Buyers Club B, Mud A-