Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Man of Steel

Comic Book Movies are big right now, that isn't news to anyone. The trend only makes sense, as the studios love nothing more than an already known property to bring to life via film. Done well, what could be better for a summer blockbuster than super humans in colorful costumes fighting just as colorful villains? This of course means big explosions, lots of action and a good opportunity to push the capabilities of the special effects crew and wow the audience.

Since the big two comic companies (Marvel and DC) are both parts of huge multi media empires, the push from page to film is only getting more urgent. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Companies exist to make money, the alternative is not being a company anymore. We can't fault Disney or Warner Bros, for using their properties to make a profit. We can, however complain when they use a property poorly. That's the other side of using a property that has name recognition before it becomes a film. Since film began, I suspect, people have said "The book was better." That factor is amplified when you're dealing with a story that's been around for decades, and in that time has been revamped countless times to stay in touch with contemporary sensibilities. If you're going to make a movie about Superman or Spider Man, first you have to decide, which one.

I've always been partial to Marvel Comics. Their characters are just more grounded and relatable. I've heard the difference described as, Spider-man Stories are always about Peter Parker, while Superman stories are all about Superman, and for the most part, I agree with that. DC has always focused on the costume side, and I never liked the idea that when I picked up a copy of the Flash, or Green Lantern for example, that for whatever reaso, there's another guy in the suit. I liked Barry Allen (The Flash) and Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) so picking up their comics and finding someone I didn't know always turned me off, as I'd invested in these characters only to be told that the guy in the suit didn't matter.

I do understand that many people grew up with the newer characters and felt the same way about the guy I didn't know. I get that, but it never made me feel any better. Combine that with the fact that DC feels compelled to wipe out their characters histories every few years and I just don't have any way to connect to that universe. With Marvel, I always felt that I could pick up a comic at any time and get the same character I knew (They'd put a new guy in the suit now and then, but it was always understood we'd get the "real" guy back before long.)

DC's practice of shuffling history usually spared two of their characters, Batman and Superman. They'd get rebooted but always ended up recognizable, more or less the same guy I always knew. Like Captain America at Marvel, Superman was the impossibly good guy that every hero wanted to be. He's one answer to the nature/nurture debate, an unimaginably powerful alien that gets raised by an outstandingly decent couple in Kansas, and embraces everything he learns from his upbringing, going on to champion "Truth, Justice, and The American Way." Obviously it's tough to tell dramatic stories about a guy that can do anything. I discussed this with my son at great lengths when he was younger and we concluded that most Superman stories consist of Superman getting knocked around by any given street punk until someone is in danger and then he remembers "I'm Superman." and puts an immediate end to the nonsense. That isn't to minimize any of the truly great Superman stories told over the years, just to illustrate that writing for an all powerful character often requires some handicapping.

Not coincidentally, Batman and Superman have been mainstays in the film universe and had film franchises before it was the expected thing to do. The first Superman movie has long been considered one of the finest superhero films ever made. Christopher Reeves seemed like the perfect Superman and the promise of the tag line "You Will believe a Man Can Fly" was delivered on, long before CGI made every visual effect you can think of achievable. There were a few sequels, and unfortunately the quality dropped with every one, but that takes nothing away from the first one. They didn't include every detail about Superman, but they got the spirit right. They tried to go back to the drawing board in 2006 with "Superman Returns" and while they got a few things right, (Brandon Routh, the plane rescue) they had overall disappointing results from the bizarre choice to adhere to the original Superman film universe while going strangely off topic, and being largely unexciting. Of course, when Christopher Nolan made a lot of money with his Batman trilogy and Marvel enjoyed unbelievable success with their Avengers film franchise, they tried to answer the fact that against all odds, "Iron Man," Thor," and Captain America," were massively successful by bringing out the misguided CGI film "Green Lantern." When that tanked, they must have been frantic to get Superman on track again. This eventually resulted in "Man of Steel."

I understand why they chose Zack Snyder to direct, although I had reservations about the result. While I enjoyed his "Dawn of the Dead" remake, I was less enthusiastic about "Watchmen," and "300." That isn't to say I didn't enjoy them at all, but my problem with his directing is that his film technique seemed centered on adaptation, bringing a comic to the screen as opposed to making a new film of the property using his own vision. The heavy handed CGI, and his lack of independent imagination made both of those films feel like a step up from motion comics more than films. Enjoyable in parts, but not a real film experience in my mind. With "Man of Steel" my hope was that he would use those CGI style tools to ramp up the action and since the screenplay wasn't based on a single graphic novel, hopefully put his own imagination to work.

After seeing "Man of Steel," I can say that he's probably made his best film yet. I can't really say that it made me happy though. He gave us an action packed version of Superman and he used his imagination. The Sci Fi elements are great, and without a doubt, the strongest part of the film. The heavy presence of Krypton really works here for the most part, particularly Russell Crowe as Jor-El, who manages to be an interesting character long after he's dead. His rivalry with General Zod (Michael Shannon) is well done. Shannon does a great job with his character, bringing with him a sense of real fanatical danger.

And then we look at Earth where Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman (Henry Cavill) is trying to figure out what to do with himself. He drifts around taking different jobs until something happens and he's forced to use his powers to intervene, saving lives or righting some wrong like Caine in Master of Kung Fu magnified a thousand times. He disappears when the job is done and goes on to the next thing. We also have the benefit of flashbacks, showing us how his Earth Dad Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and his mother Martha (Diane Lane) shaped him while he grew up. Costner and Lane do a great job portraying the Kents as decent people through and through. However, Jonathan is puzzling in parts, such as an incident where young Clark saves a bus full of his school mates and ends up revealing his powers.
"Should I have let them die?" Clark asks his very displeased father.
"Maybe." Jonathan says.
While this is only one moment in the film, it's stressed as a pivotal one, and this answer doesn't match the character we see otherwise. Couldn't he have simply told Clark to be more discreet? This bit of dialogue seems placed there simply to introduce a "grey area" to the film.

We see it again, when he tells Clark  " One day, you're going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it's going to change the world." The character we briefly see doesn't match the character speaking. He raises Clark well, and has no cause to question whether he'll have good or bad character (particularly when Clark only gets in trouble for saving a bunch of kids.) I've often assumed that it was the Kent's conviction that people are good, that instilled the same belief in Superman. Here, that idea gets twisted around a bit. We're shown the goodness of the Kents but then Jonathan feels compelled to say something cynical. This strange character quirk shows up even more in contrast with Jor-El, who hasn't seen his son except as an infant, yet tells General Zod, he has no doubt about his son's goodness or his ability to defeat him.

Still, the relationship with the Kents comes through in tone if not always in sensible words.Snyder and his cast do manage to get the affection between the Kents and their adopted son, who they think of as their own. Jonathan's obsession with keeping Clark's alien origins a secret also makes sense in its way. Fame changes people and the fame of being the only alien from outer space on Earth isn't something you'd want to be known for before you're ready. Jonathan's final scene shows us that he's willing to protect the secret with his life, and that Clark is willing to listen to him, despite his eagerness to help.

When an alien ship is discovered in the Arctic, Clark/Kal-El checks it out and finds his Superman suit as well as the consciousness of Jor-El, which is stored in the ship. He also meets Lois Lane (Amy Adams) there, in pursuit of a big story. After saving her from the ship's defenses, he tries on the suit, and soon discovers that his interaction with the ship has called General Zod and his crew to Earth, in pursuit of the "Codex" which contains the genetic information to restart Krypton on another planet. Zod demands that Earth surrender Clark (although Earth is not aware of his existence.) with a very well done "You are not alone" announcement to the whole planet. Superman decides that he'll split the difference and surrender not to Zod but to Earth's military, who take him into custody while they figure things out. He eventually surrenders to Zod, once he gets Lois Lane into custody. Lois and Clark soon realize they're in trouble when Zod's ship depowers Superman. With a little help from the consciousness of Jor-El they escape. Jor-El tells Lois how to send the bad guys back to the Phantom Zone, but before they can get to that Zod decides to start terraforming the Earth to be a new Krypton, using an Engine in the Arctic which passes energy back and forth through the Earth to Zod's ship in Metropolis.

This process starts destroying Metropolis on a massive scale. Snyder shows us people in the street watching as skyscrapers collapse like dominoes, presumably filling hundreds by the second. Superman heads to the Arctic to stop the engine, although they assume he'll be weaker near the engine as it simulates the atmosphere of Krypton. Lois points this out, and we get a glimpse of Superman as he tells her he still has to try. Superman stops the Engine and heads back to Metropolis which now looks as uninhabitable as the world of Mad Max. The military with help from Lois who has Jor-El's instructions has defeated Zod's crew, with only Zod escaping a black hole created from the Kryptonian technology.

Superman and Zod fight, knocking down most of the buildings that were left. After a huge super powered battle, Superman has Zod in a headlock when Zod starts using his heat vision, attempting to incinerate a group of a few people close by. Superman for some reason, decides he's had enough and snaps Zod's neck, he then sobs about it and Lois shows up to console him.

To me, this final series of events is a black mark on the film. It's here Snyder's fascination with the possibilities of CGI get in the way of his storytelling. While I'm not crazy about having Superman kill the bad guy, there are possible ways to have it happen. This however was not a satisfying way to reach that point. One of the reasons that Superman has all the ridiculous powers he does, is so that he can avoid killing people. By his very nature, Superman is the Deus Ex Machina personified. Even Jor-El comments that "he'll be a god to them." (Not to mention the tons of Christ imagery in the film) Not here though. While Snyder makes it clear that Superman is powerful, he makes that power seem a minor thing compared to the problem he's confronting. While that certainly opens up the possibility for action and high powered fighting, it also makes Superman feel a bit useless.

Scale is the biggest problem when dealing with this film's final showdown. Everybody knows from fairly recent experience what a tragedy it is when one skyscraper goes down. Here, Superman and company seem  unaffected by it. Certainly he rushes to stop the engine causing it, but his mood hardly seems changed by surveying the wreckage of Metropolis. Zod promises he'll kill lots of people and Superman doesn't think to point out that he's already killed many thousands. In the wake of all the CGI carnage, the impact of Zod's laser beam homing in on potential victims James Bond villain style barely registers and the emotional urgency feels contrived as if Snyder, Goyer and company decided while making the film that they needed this scene to happen and then filled in haphazardly to get to it. The combination of disaster overkill and the unclear showing of Superman's abilities, and sense of obligation gives him the weakest possible showing.

Even worse, this lack of impact is added to by Superman himself who gets mad and knocks villains through gas stations, IHOPs and tall buildings. He fights another Kryptonian while surrounded by civilians, which would seem to be asking for casualties to happen. He saves someone who falls out of a helicopter, while letting everyone inside the helicopter die in an explosion. His urge to save people seems inconsistent at best, particularly when it's painstakingly pointed out to us that he is hyper aware of his surroundings. He sees and hears everything, yet decides that plowing through an IHOP is preferable to an occupied building. "Man of Steel's" failure in this respect, is all the more painful in that it's not far from being a great Superman movie. It seems they just forgot that it was Superman. This isn't a Superman that's determined to save everyone, but a Superman who seems committed to Jonathan Kent's "Maybe."

While I typically enjoy anti heroes and stories that deal with moral grey areas, every story can't be that one, or that story stops being possible. I personally don't think Superman stories are the place for those dilemmas. He's supposed to be firmly on the "Hero" side of the equation. Without that certainty, he's just another character, not the icon that DC comics is built around, and has influenced every superhero since.

That being said, the last few minutes seem to introduce the guy who was supposed to show up for the film. "You can trust me. I'm from Kansas." Superman tells the military after all is said and done. They seem to accept that although the clean up of Metropolis is probably just getting started and I found myself wishing the story started there. Maybe he'll be in the sequels, but I don't accept sequel set up as a justification for anything in this film. I don't believe that Superman needs to be mostly ineffectual to be relatable. Save that for the other superheroes, or Superman won't stay Superman for long.

Monday, June 17, 2013


It's easy to forget the impact that "Dirty Harry" had, as well as how much it fit into many people's concerns about criminals, cops, and the law. While it may seem a bit of a caricature now, the themes of violent criminals getting set free due to technicalities caused by rulings concerned with civil rights was very real in the minds of the public. That concern was given a face when Harry Callahan was introduced. His unstoppable pursuit of criminals was constantly hindered by his bosses fear of getting sued or having prosecution fall apart due to the criminal's rights not being honored to the letter of the law. At the time, the expectation was that we would soon have a new generation full of unstoppable psychopaths, a natural crime wave that was sure to take over every city. In hindsight, that crime wave didn't happen but the concerns have remained, only taking different form. The street punks we were worried about are no longer the main concern, but terrorists are. And so, "Dirty Harry" became "Jack Bauer." But, before that happened, we had many different cinematic cops modeled after Harry.

Judge Dredd, however was a little different, in that it looked at what the future would look like if Dirty Harry's logic was taken to the logical extreme. In 1977, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra (created a future where crime was everywhere. Rather than be stopped by civil rights concerns, the powers that be decided that cops would be "Judges" with the power of judge, and executioner on the spot. The comic book character "Judge Dredd" was the future of Dirty Harry. Judge Dredd dispensed justice (and still does) in Mega-City One (New York City, if urban sprawl was allowed to spread it from Boston to Washington DC)
Unlike Dirty Harry, Judge Dredd is a faceless figure allowing him to symbolize justice without getting mired down in personal issues. Since his introduction, the character has spread throughout popular culture, becoming recognizable all over the world, as Dredd spread throughout popular culture to people who knew nothing of his comic book history, via surprising sources such as the band Anthrax, whose song "I Am The Law" helped Judge Dredd infiltrate consciousness everywhere via denim jackets and posters.

For better or worse, there was also an adaptation that made its way to film, via Danny Cannon, and starring Sylvester Stallone, who didn't really get the faceless nature of the character. While it used elements from the Judge Dredd universe it couldn't have been further from the spirit of Judge Dredd. It also largely failed to attract anyone's interest, becoming an infamous failure both critically and commercially. 

Luckily, the character of Judge Dredd is too iconic to be ruined by such treatment. He continued in the comic books, and finally made his way to film in a treatment that gets him, with Pete Travis' 2012 film, "Dredd" Made with half the budget of Cannon's failure, it was clearly more familiar with the source material. From the start, we see that Mega City One is a gritty future where a Judge has plenty to keep him busy on any given day. The opening shows us Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) in action, as he chases minor criminals who upgrade themselves to homicide and they get brutally sentenced on the spot.

Judge Dredd is assigned to evaluate a prospect for a new Judge, Cassandra Anderson, (Olivia Thirlby) a mutant and a powerful psychic. She's told the criteria for her evaluation and they take off into the streets. They respond to a multiple homicide at Peach Trees a 200 story slum compound, which is ruled by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) a former prostitute who became a powerful drug lord. She's the manufacturer and distributor of the drug "Slo-Mo" which as the name suggests, changes the users perception of real time, to seem like slow motion. The homicide that Dredd and Anderson respond to is Ma-Ma's handiwork. She gave the offenders a dose of Slo-Mo before flaying them and then throwing them from the top story into the street as an example. 

They enter Peach Trees and thanks to Anderson's psychic ability, they quickly find Kay, (Wood Harris,) one of the men who did the killing and take him into custody, intending to bring him in for interrogation, since Anderson's psychic gift is not proof. Ma-Ma, however can't afford to have Kay give up what he knows about her operation and manages to lock down the building, commanding everyone in it to take down the Judges. The wisdom of this decision comes into question as Dredd and Anderson must know shoot their way up to Ma-Ma herself in order to leave the building. 

While "Dredd" is not a huge budget film, it's visually very impressive. While I saw it in 2D it's easy to tell that it was shot for 3D, largely due to the Slo-Mo sequences, and falls from great heights. None of this takes anything away from the film, and makes the viewer sit with the violence a little longer than they might like, even drawing attention to the visual beauty of the actions. Having a predictable plot doesn't hurt it either, as this is a very old kind of story. The novelty here, is what constitutes "normal" for a Judge in this future. While Dirty Harry and his descendants in present day are seen as "loose cannon cops," in  Mega City One, Harry's inheritor, Judge Dredd is the standard. The predicted crime wave has happened and flourished, and at this point it's hard to argue with the necessity of brutal justice. 

However, as with any cop story the biggest argument against Judges comes from within their ranks. We know Dredd follows the law, but inevitably, Judge's powers end up in the hands of the morally challenged. In the future, they haven't managed to eliminate police corruption and this raises big questions about the whole system. Using trainee Anderson as our entry point we are also able to look at the possibility that "justice" can have different interpretations, a fact which Judge Dredd himself remarks on by allowing an act of mercy to pass, seemingly accepting Anderson's argument that one particular criminal is really a victim. Of course in this story, we have the benefit of Anderson's ability to read minds and Judge Dredd's moral code. That fact points out that there are many other possible stories that end less justly without those factors. Where authority exists, it will be abused, and it happens all around our central characters, but luckily not through them.

Karl Urban's portrayal of Judge Dredd is pitch perfect. He never takes off the helmet, and gives a great restrained performance. His Judge Dredd is a man who has become his job. We don't hear any of his personal details from him. He speaks in a gruff voice, without overdoing it, recalling Eastwood's Dirty Harry, and Christian Bale's Batman, (although it plays naturally here, not as unintentionally comical as hearing Batman growling.) This version of Dredd will kill without hesitation, but  we see him offer terms, offerring a criminal life in prison as an incentive to surrender. The criminal mistakes this for uncertainty and then realizes too late that it was only a courtesy.

The only questions he asks are for the benefit of Anderson. Olivia Thirlby's Anderson also comes through very well. While she's clearly in the story to help us see Dredd for the first time, she reacts well to the balance of duty and conscience. She has a scene where the law requires her to execute a man, and we see her strain, but ultimately complies, reinforcing the fact that in this future, execution is a very real part of the law and being a Judge. She still has the ability to weigh a moral dilemma though, as we see when she decides at a later point to be merciful to a man who is more a victim. Telepathy helps with that.  Lena Heady is wonderful as the merciless Ma-Ma, a character created for the film, that feels as if she's always existed in this universe. She's as uncompromising as Judge Dredd, coming from the other side of the law.

I would imagine that Director Pete Travis has some affection for the comic book character, as he went to great lengths to create a film that's true to Dredd in spirit. This is an instance, I think, where the film version is created to highlight the character and is served very well by creating a new story for film rather than blindly adapting a story line (Watchmen.) All the elements are put into place here, and we understand the bleakness of this universe and its inhabitants. It would be a wonderful first installment of a series. Unfortunately, there's some question as to that happening since it didn't do as well at the box office as desired. Hopefully, DVD and On Demand sales can make a difference as I'd love to see more of these characters.

"Dredd" comes through as a great action movie that's true to it's source. It prompts the same questions that "Dirty Harry" did, only a little further down the road. It doesn't pretend to answer these questions, as it isn't philosophy or policy, but a story which uses these questions to entertain us. Certainly there are good questions in here to consider, just the same as when we hear any instance of abuse of authority in the news. While we don't have any predictions of an oncoming criminal generation, we'll always have some oncoming crisis to justify increased security powers, and that will always be at odds with the rights of the individual. I'm not sure that there will ever be an easy answer to this dilemma, but it calls to mind Benjamin Franklin's quote,  
"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Apparently, we've been struggling with this idea a long time, but it has shifted and evolved. I only hope that we decide on retaining a little liberty as I doubt a complete lack of it, will make anyone feel safe. Personally, I wouldn't bet that any real Judges would be as trustworthy as Judge Dredd.

Friday, June 7, 2013


The coming of age film is a long tradition, but it's not often done well. Most of the time, it's an excuse to tell a formulaic story of small challenges wrapped up with a tidy moral (see Superbad, most Pixar and Disney Films.) Sometimes it seems to me that there's an understanding that "family" films must be bland and reinforce a limited moral code, as if "children" can't handle complex thought, or perhaps that there's a magical age when they suddenly become capable of reasoning although it was never asked of them earlier.

Personally, I've always felt that good coming of age stories are the best films of all, giving us a chance to look at our lives with a fresh perspective long after we've forgotten what it was like to grow up. Films such as, "Stand By Me," "Rebel Without A Cause," "The Return," "Mysterious Skin," and "My Life as a Dog,"  to select a handful of examples, agree that an important step towards manhood is realizing that nothing comes easy, and the adults don't have the answers either.

"Mud" is a movie in that tradition. It centers on two friends, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Loflan.) Ellis lives on a houseboat in Arkansas, where he helps his father deliver fish to local customers. His father is stern and strict about rules but it becomes more and more clear that he and Mom aren't getting along. Neckbone doesn't have parents, and lives with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) who spends most of his time chasing women, providing a safe place to live and more friendship than a parental role.

Ellis and Neckbone spend their free time cruising around the river. They're fascinated to find a boat stuck in a tree on an island, and attempt to claim it as their own. They soon find that the boat has already been claimed, when a mysterious man named "Mud." (Matthew McConaughey) appears on the beach, after they notice his footprints, which leave a cross imprint in the sand (for good luck he tells them.) "It's a hell of a thing, a boat in a tree." he says, and proposes a deal. If they help him by bringing food, they can have the boat when he leaves, which is supposed to be after his "true love," Juniper, (Reese Witherspoon) a beauty with birds tattooed on her hands, arrives to meet him.

Mud tells them half stories and shares his superstitions including the story of his lucky shirt. They get a hint that he may be more dangerous than he appears, as he has a gun tucked into his pants, and takes offense when Neckbone calls him a "bum" telling him that he could call him "homeless" or even a "hobo" as neither of those terms imply worthlessness or laziness. Ellis is more impressed by Mud than Neckbone, but he goes along with his friend's wishes.

At home, we see that Ellis is caught in the middle of his parents' bitterness, although when he asks his father, Senior (Ray McKinnon) about their loud disagreements, he's told to mind his own business. That situation rapidly degenerates as his father heads towards a breakdown and finally admits that his mother wants to move away from the river and into town. This would mean they'd lose the houseboat as she technically owns it. His father presents it as his way of life on the river being taken away, but it's not as simple as that. When pressed about it, Ellis' mother reveals that she's been keeping the family afloat for years, although Senior likes to believe otherwise for the sake of his masculine pride.

Visiting Mud becomes an escape for Ellis, even when it becomes clear there's more to Mud than he first presented. After the FBI arrives in town looking for Mud with "Wanted" posters, Ellis lets him know. He tells the boys that he killed a man who was cruel to Juniper. This only strengthens Ellis' resolve to help even as Mud changes plans, deciding he'll need to get the boat out of the tree and escape. Ellis sees all Mud's actions as performed for the sake of true love. Ellis himself is experiencing his own love at the time, and punches an older kid for harassing the girl he has eyes for in order to start a conversation.

Ellis and Neckbone discover Juniper in town and act as a third party for Mud's messages. This gets them into a tense situation with a gangster, the brother of the man Mud killed looking to exact retribution. Soon we see that the murdered man's powerful father, described by Mud as "the devil himself"  is in town as well with lots of help.Mud asks them to get in touch with Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) as well, referring to him as an "assassin." Tom goes with the boys to the island, but rather than help he scolds Mud and tells him he's not getting involved. He tells Ellis later that Mud has always gotten into trouble over Juniper, who has a habit of leaving Mud and picking up with dangerous men until Mud gets her out of trouble, only to do it all over again.

Tensions mount as the FBI, the gangsters close in and Juniper is hesitant to leave with Mud. Ellis has his own battles as he has a meaningful moment with the girl he likes only to have her ignore him later on when she's with an older boy. He tries punching the older kid but it doesn't work as well this time. They find Mud drunk and not wearing his lucky shirt anymore as if he's given up. The set progression is altered however, when Ellis is the victim of a snakebite and Mud has to leave his island to rush him into town before it's too late, setting up the circumstances that reveal everyone's true character.

"Mud" is a visually beautiful film, clearly focused on the river. Jeff Nichols proves again (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter) that he's a gifted storyteller. Small touches like boat landings, and puddles full of snakes and houseboats give it the feeling of authenticity. Mud's boat in a tree set up calls to mind the treehouse in "Badlands" although this time inhabited by someone capable of living in nature. The characters as well, are all informed by the river, Ellis' family and Neckbone's Uncle Galen both make their living from the river (though Galen seems to have it down a little better than Senior) This way of life, it seems is not an easy one and on the verge of disappearing. Mud himself seems a throwback to another time, and we can't help but wonder how rare it is to find a place where a man can hide out on an island and only by chance be discovered by a couple kids. McConaughey makes this role his own, as he's had a habit of doing recently. This character is a guy who has become so wrapped up in his own superstitious persona and destructive pattern of behavior that he's forgotten about many things that most people live with, (such as the law, and consequences.) As much as Ellis is blinded to danger by the idea of true love, Mud has taken it to whole different level. His exhilaration and disappointment concerning Juniper have become his life by force of habit. His hideout on the island is significant however, as we learn it's where he and Juniper first met, perhaps a sign that he's looking at where he's been.

Ray McKinnon's senior is a tragic figure in a different way than Mud. He presents us with a portrait of a proud failure. Like Mud, he seems to long for another time, but simply isn't the man he'd like to be. He presents himself as a traditionalist who wants to preserve a way of life, but we learn that he adopted this way of life from his wife and her traditions and this doesn't pay the bills. Mary Lee, has had all she can take of the river, as she grew up with it never feeling the need to mythologize.

Tye Sheridan does a tremendous job as Ellis. He sees everything that's happening and we catch him at a pivot point. Everything he knows about the world from being a child is being challenged. His mother and father aren't staying together, his father's work ethic appears to be pointless, and his ability to see love as a worthy motivation is severely challenged. He wrestles with these issues internally and by his own direct actions for mostly little reward.

Reese Witherspoon is another twisted character, as caught in habit as Mud, who she says she loves but can't live with. It's easy to see why Tom Blankenship thinks poorly of Juniper, as she certainly seems bound for ruin, damaging everyone around her on the way. Yet, Juniper's behavior is a known quantity. We know that she has a pattern, so while Blankenship blames her for Mud's misfortune, Mud can hardly be surprised. We do in fact see that Mud eventually accepts reality but certainly not easily.

The figure of Mud offers possibilities to Ellis. While boys typically see their fathers as a preview of what they might become, Ellis isn't happy with that. He knows his own father is miserable, powerless and broken in ways he isn't able to understand yet. Senior is also resigned to the fact that everything is crumbling. Ellis is young and wants to believe in things, possibility and true love. He isn't impressed by Neckbone's Uncle Galen, a figure of manhood who appears very limited in his expectations. Mud, at least on the surface presents a purer picture. To Ellis, here's a guy who lives by his superstitions and risks everything for the girl he loves. Of course, he learns eventually that Mud's ways are partly an act he uses to escape accountability. Ellis is hurt when Mud gives up on Juniper, despite the fact that he has little choice if he'd like to avoid prison or death.

Nothing works out the way Ellis would like it to, but his good faith is still rewarded when Mud saves his life at great personal cost and he even risks everything again to say goodbye before leaving town. Maybe Mud is still a fraud, but he has some good points too, that came out because the unexpected happened. In "Mud" nobody has all the answers. Mud knows as little about love as anyone, including Ellis' parents or Ellis himself.   But that isn't to say there aren't people who come through for you, Mud does in his way, and Tom Blankenship does the same thing for Mud. Despite washing his hands of Mud's latest campaign, he comes through when it counts in a real and surprising way. And Senior stays there too, even as the way of life he imagined he'd wanted is gone. It's all a risk, and everyone is both more and less than they first appear, but it isn't hopeless. Everything can change, but there's plenty around to believe in if you want to.