I was a bit surprised to find myself bored stiff about halfway through this one – on paper, I’d been quite looking forward to it. Michael Shannon is one of my favourite actors at the moment and the thought of him doing mafia contract killer seemed a perfect match. Plus there’s a strong cast: Ray Liotta, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans (not the ginger one), James Franco and the tall bloke from Friends for comedy value. But in fact it’s a fairly standard period piece set in the 70s and 80s with appropriately dreadful facial hair. I know the facial hair is accurate, I have a photo of my dad in the 70s with David Schwimmer’s exact moustache.
So what’s wrong? It’s a true story: Kuklinski (Shannon) was a psychopathic killer who worked for a low-level mobster in New Jersey (Liotta, phoning his performance in from home while putting on eyeliner). He murdered over 100 people before he was caught (maybe as many as 250), which surprised his wife and daughters who knew he was a bit naughty but didn’t worry too much about it because they had a nice house.
In a Q&A after the screening, Shannon said he’d picked up a lot from the outtakes from a series of HBO interviews with Kuklinski – still available on YouTube and as creepy as you imagine they might be. The most telling part, and the reason I think the film falls flat, is when in some of the unused footage the interviewer tries to get a bit more insight into Kuklinski’s character by pushing him to talk about what he did when he wasn’t out murdering. All he could say was that he liked to sit by the fire in his armchair. And the problem with making a film about a rather dull bad man is that it ends up being equally dull. Yes, there’s the standard flashback of his mother beating him, and we learn a little from his brother (an almost unrecognisable Stephen Dorff) about some unpleasantness at school. But both felt a bit bolted on – as if director Ariel Vromen suddenly realised he needed a bit more meat on the bone, so to speak.
It’s a shame, because the performances could have lifted this above most serial killer/wiseguy efforts. On the plus side, Shannon did a fabulous Q&A and I still love him but hopefully next time he’ll have a bit more to do than look murderously peeved (he’s about to work with Jeff Nichols again so my hopes are high).
As nicknames go, Mud isn’t a great one, but it fits Matthew McConaughey’s slightly soiled fugitive perfectly. He’s hiding out on an island on the Mississippi river, shacked up in an old boat that two 14-year-old boys had planned to make their own (which happens to be up a tree). To the boys, Mud is a character straight from a book – full of exaggerated stories, spouting myth and legend, who comes with a large element of danger plus a star-crossed lover. The boys are too swept away by his stories to see the slightly disappointing truth – that Mud is a man chased by a dark history and full of tall tales. His connection to another mysterious river-dweller (an also suitably grizzled looking Sam Shepard) only adds to his allure.
The two boys both have disrupted home lives. Ellis (Ida Sheridan) is caught between parents who are splitting up and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) lives with his slightly bonkers uncle (Michael Shannon, playing an uncharacteristically genial role). Both are struggling to understand what love is, and when Mud reveals his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) is on her way to meet up with him, Ellis in particular is so entranced with the romance of it all that he gets more involved with Mud’s shenanigans than he should.
Jeff Nichols’ third feature, following the excellent Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, Mud is made with obvious affection for the area and its people, and has great performances all round, particularly from McConaughey and Sheridan who are superb. With echoes of Stand By Me and Huck Finn, it’s a film that most of all shines with love.
I missed seeing this at the festival and really regretted it, Michael Shannon is fast becoming one of my favourite actors, not least for his darkly sexy performance as government agent van Alden in Boardwalk Empire (he’s joined here by another Boardwalk stalwart, Shea Whigham). In Take Shelter he plays Curtis, a man suffering from hallucinations and terrible dreams about impending doom – the sort of dreams where you wake up silently screaming and drenched in sweat. Having a mother with paranoid schizophrenia leads him to think his worst fears of heading the same way are being realised and despite seeking out help, he slowly but surely loses control and his idyllic family life descends into chaos.
Curtis struggles between understanding the visions are all in his head and his desperate need to prepare for the worst even at the expense of his job and often, heartbreakingly, the people he loves. Shannon is nothing less than brilliant and surely a cert for an Oscar nomination – this is a fairly long film at two hours, but it never feels too drawn out: he’s magnetic – you can’t take your eyes off him.
Jeff Nichols has directed a powerful and breathtakingly beautiful film that serves as a grim reflection of our times as well as a sensitive portrayal of the impact of mental illness. It’s got a great ending too, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Highly recommended.