Friday, May 3, 2013

To the Wonder and Mud

          “People just sometimes forget why they fell in love
         in the first place.”  from Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2013)

                            Review by Ken Burke               To the Wonder

A typical Terrence Malick film, more to be experienced than explained, although this abstract poetic experience—about the heartaches of love—may not be for everyone.


Another notable Matthew McConaughey redneck role (high praise!) in a marvelous story about passion, trust, and surviving on the margins of various hostile societies.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.]

Given my penchant for jumping you over to musical interludes that (hopefully) have some connection to what I’m writing about in my reviews I could easily encourage you to either the smoother (something like The Beatles' 1963 All My Loving) or the harder (such as Bonnie Tyler’s 1977 It's a Heartache) aspects of that essential human experience in discussing this week’s embraceable films (for their quality more so than the lovable aspects of many of their characters)—and you’re welcome to delve into those noted musical options if you like (my official songs for To the Wonder and Mud come later), but it would be hard to find a single song that covers the complex issues and entanglements that inspire, haunt, and in some cases crush the struggling souls that inhabit the beautifully disturbing films under analysis this week (although one possible choice might be U2’s 1987 I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For], from The Joshua Tree album).  But music aside and films front and center, starting with Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, we have a meditation/poem/resonance on the need for love and understanding as a fundamental human requirement for a fulfilled life.  However, as is the usual case with Malick and even more so in this example of his work than the somewhat-more-conventionally-narrative structures of his earlier films (except Tree of Life, 2011), it’s not so much what you can follow in an expected event-leads-to-event structure but more of an implication of what our traditional narrative presentations would look/sound/feel like if transformed into the types of photographs-as-allusional-signs-for-emotional-states that characterized the work of Alfred Stieglitz in his early-20th concept of “Equivalents,” such as the one in the image above (untitled as his photos of this type often are) which evokes more than illustrates.

Within To the Wonder there is a catalogue of imagery that would do Stieglitz proud, as Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (an early contender for me for next year’s Oscar), provide a rather oblique look into the attempts of two men—suburban environmental inspector Neil (Ben Affleck) and Catholic priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem)—to find personal stability in lives where their chosen vocations are weakened and unfilled by a void, for Neil the unsuccessful attempt to find a functional relationship with either of two women that he initially seems very compatible with—French Marina (Olga Kurylenko; Ukraninan-born but ultimately French herself, also the true love object of Tom Cruise in Oblivion so she’s currently getting a lot of screen time—review of that sci-fi film in our April 26, 2013 posting in this blog) and Oklahoma rancher Jane (Rachel McAdams)—and for Quintana the empty feeling that he’s not really feeling the love of Christ needed to give validity to his work with the poor and distraught, rather than it being just surface gestures of compassion on his part.  We’ll begin, as the film does, with Neil and Marina, traveling through France, presented to us with gorgeous imagery, lots of quick cuts that don’t so much energize a specific scene as stir together a collage of perspectives and abstract references, a dearth of dialogue in a sound film not done in such restraint since the heyday of Michelangelo Antonioni (check his filmography [at sites such as] and start with L’Avventura [1960]—the least action-filled “adventure” you’re ever likely to see—and continue on through The Passenger [1975] for his master works, although there are a few others prior to and after this peak period) with what is said often whispered in such a manner that you can’t really understand it anyway, and the occasional subtitles for sporadic French dialogue presented in a font size so small as to be almost unreadable on a huge screen so you might have to skip it entirely in a video version (although I don’t think you’d miss much because this is mostly a cinematic visual and soundtrack encounter, if you’re going to be able to find value in it at all).  Neil is the very definition of stoic, although he does allow occasional expressions of joy and caring in the company of Marina, a much more animated spirit who’s clearly looking for a passionate lover for herself and a stable stepfather for her 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), given that her ex-husband didn’t prove to be part of the willing partnership that she assumed she’d found when she married him at 17.  Soon, mother and child have a new home in a gorgeous, huge house overlooking … virtually nothing in flatland Oklahoma where the sky and horizons go on forever but there’s nothing much in the neighborhood for these transplanted Parisians except other huge homes, a culture that’s not theirs (Tatiana attends school but only perks up at the end of the day when back with her mother and Neil), a continually troubled attitude from Neil as he finds evidence of metals in the local groundwater, and finally a growing distance between the former lovers—along with rebellious tantrums from Tatiana—given a complete break when Marina’s visa expires (as she quietly states in voiceover, she’d have made an effort to stay if he’d asked her to but—sadly enough—he didn’t).

Left alone on the sprawling plains, Neil rekindles an old flame with Jane, a widow left with a horse ranch none too thriving.  The dialogue in this new romance continues in the same limited and restrained manner, but in addition to great shots of photogenic actors contemplating late afternoon light (along with early morning, a great time to be shooting any subject matter) we also have magnificent horses and bison (or buffalo if you prefer, although that’s not zoologically correct for these American prairie beasts) that get plenty of coverage as well.  Once again, Neil’s spirits are elevated (along with other bodily parts I’m sure, but that’s not the focus of a Malick romance, no matter how good these uncovered bodies would look on screen) for awhile but distance grows between these lovers as well, with Jane (who faintly reminds me of the Roslyn Taber character in another quasi-western movie setting played by Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits [John Huston, 1951], a woman with the same underlying sadness as Jane) replaced by a returning Marina who leaves Tatiana in France with her father, where she’s stable enough, and stays in contact via computer while the second time around with Neil is pushed to the level of marriage, as they try to ascend to that next plateau that had eluded them in their previous attempts to find paradise in Oklahoma (a state I only drove quickly through occasionally because I found nothing there that wasn’t already available in equally-exciting spots such as Brownwood, Abilene, and the Midland-Odessa “metropolitan” area of central and west Texas, none of which would likely make the Michelin Guide for “the world’s most traveled destinations”).  Although on their first encounter Marina said that Neil “brought her back to life,” this time he’s only brought her back to a lifestyle of indeterminate emptiness where the “wonder” lies not in the life around them but in the “wonder”ing of what to do next and how to find that elusive love connection that could transcend the oppressive ordinary that surrounds them.  Love may conquer all in its best manifestations, but first it has to be so fully internalized within the lovers that it can be the motivation that takes them beyond a routine life of air conditioning and cable TV.  Malick yearns for that kind of heart connection to be available to his characters, but their love has yet to penetrate them fully enough to transcend the malaise that infects them all and eventually destroys whatever “wonder” they might have assumed they’d achieved.  This all reminds of that great scene in The Godfather: Part III (Francis Ford Coppola, 1990) where the Cardinal-soon-to-be-Pope hears Michael Corleone’s confession in a Vatican garden, offering the analogy of how a small rock in a fountain when broken open is dry inside because the water has not soaked through to its core, just as people in Europe have been surrounded for centuries by Christianity but Christ has not penetrated their souls.

There’s a clergyman in To the Wonder as well, Father Quintana, with his somber approach toward life because he has neither water nor fire in his inner core, just a desert of unresolved questions about why he doesn’t feel the presence of Jesus, even as he attempts to do his Lord’s work among the downtrodden of this community, where his church services are often poorly-populated, his own parishioners tell him that they need for him to be a more dynamic leader to help revitalize their flock, and he has little of the Holy Spirit to offer to those who need it most because, instead of him being a transparent vessel through which grace might flow to those desperate for healing, his own blocked inner spiritual chambers are holding back any help from beyond that might first energize him so that he could pass it on to those who look to their priest for guidance on the path to salvation.  Instead of voices from above offering assistance to these wanderers all we have are the occasional voiceovers of the characters, noting their troubling disillusionments in a manner that’s not always inner dialogue of a current scene but is future commentary looking back on what we’re seeing at the moment on screen, as if the images may be a sort of personal replay of characters reminiscing about the loss of what was so dear to them, especially the emotional love that Marina hoped to find with Neil but could never maintain and the spiritual love that Father Quintana hoped to find with his Creator in order to more legitimately share it with the needy in his community.  One of his troubled parishioners seems to need salvation of the flesh more than of the spirit as she pounds on his door, anxious to be with him, but he pretends not to be home, trying his best to resist his own temptations of the flesh even though that may be the direct path to the inner peace that he seeks.  (I’m not very objective on the topic of priestly celibacy nor at all optimistic that new Pope Francis has any intention of changing that long-outdated, soul-tormenting practice; I wonder if when Disney brings us those new Star Wars films we’ll see a much older Luke Skywalker and find out how the Jedi celibacy policy is working out for him [better than for his father, I hope—which generates one of those angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin questions:  Was it Anakin Skywalker’s punishment to fall to the Dark Side because he violated the celibacy rule or was it his necessary sacrifice to do so in order to help bring Luke and Leia into the world of that galaxy long ago and far away to save their world[s] from a corrupt emperor who would have seized power anyway even without Darth Vader to help him with his overthrow of the Republic?  That may seem too esoteric to contemplate—or you could just dismiss is as an ungrounded concern about Jedi abilities to rise above the needs of the body by citing the serenity of Yoda, although after 900 or so years I’ll bet Yoda had other bodily concerns that were more pressing by the time that we met him—but if you replace pop-culture mythology with Christian theology do you condemn Judas Iscariot for betraying Jesus or acknowledge his self-sacrifice as a necessary component of mankind’s salvation?  These kinds of unresolved quandaries may well have been contributed to Father Quintana’s sense of aimlessness, along with his need for a human companion to help him find the compassion he sought to flow fiercely through this veins in order to better share it with his parishioners on both sides of the jailhouse door.)  Malick brings his resolution-seeking male protagonists together toward the end of To the Wonder as Neil looks for help with his marriage; however, Quintana is not much use as a counselor so we just end up with divorce, Marina back in France, and no one resolved, still achingly trying to find what they’re looking for in life.

   And if all that just brings you back to the yearning mood of the U2 song referenced above when I began these ruminations (Malick’s films are great inspirations for ruminations; he makes it hard to not think deeply about what he’s presenting, even if words seems as inappropriate for us as for him in trying to convey feelings that seem too pre-verbal to even articulate), I could offer another lyrical “Equivalent” with the old Simon and Garfunkel song “April Come She Will” (from the 1966 Sounds of Silence album), used so well in The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) so if you’d like to see/hear it in that context there’s a nice wide-screen version at, I’ll recommend even more this one at because it caps off the sad juxtaposition of this melancholy tune with the shots of the empty relationship between Benjamin Braddock and Mrs. Robinson by including a bit of the dialogue between Ben and his exasperated father; what this clip doesn’t finish with, though, is the father asking his son why, if he’s just going to float around in a swimming pool, that he invested all that time and energy into his college education, to which Ben replies, “You got me!”  I always enjoy playing that to a class of just-about-to-graduate seniors and listening to their nervous laughter as they try to assure themselves that it’s just a joke.)  Silly song asides aside, To the Wonder is Malick’s marvelously abstracted explorations of the vital necessity of inhabiting a deep emotional/sensual/spiritual connection with existence (there’s no reason why they can’t all coexist or at least take specific priorities within specific individuals if, say, Father Quintana, can find some strategy of achieving the inner peace he seeks without needing the physical love of another person for that to happen).  Very early in the film, Neil and Marina visit the famed monastery of Mont St.-Michel in Normandy, a place known as “The Wonder,” so you could say that Malick is just giving a descriptive title to his cinematic story (like Derek Cianfrance did with The Place Beyond the Pines, which is simply a translation of the Mohawk name for Schenectady, NY—review in our April 18, 2013 posting), but to reduce this title to such literal simplicity is to miss the entire concept of what Malick has constructed.  I understand that it may be too esoteric and confusing for all tastes (not to disparage anyone’s intellectual abilities or range of interests, but if you’re a great fan of such stuff as Pain and Gain [Michael Bay] and The Big Wedding [Justin Zackha]), I’d have to caution you to think seriously before spending your money on To the Wonder (on the other hand, highbrow critics who normally laud Malick weren’t kind to his latest offering either; you can check the details at the links below, but the Rotten Tomato-throwers gave a mere 42, the Metacritics were the high score with 59, and the [sadly] soon-to-be-gone snobs at Movie Intelligence offered only 55).

 If Malick’s work is generally unknown to you, I’d say he’s probably more accessible in this most recent film if you’re first familiar with Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978); some might find it a tossup as to whether his previous film, The Tree of Life (2011), is the stranger one or that “honor” rests with To the Wonder.  For me the former had stunning visuals but was just too vaguely interesting and a bit simplistic in its attempt to show the ongoing continuity of existence as humans struggle to understand the larger, longer context that they are a part of, whereas To the Wonder is a lot more abstract that what normally ends up with a big-budget theatrical release but I find it mesmerizing, even though I now read that the original story and its supporting cast were considerably larger but that all footage of the performances by Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper, and Michael Sheen was removed from the final cut, so I can only vaguely imagine what the intended version might have been like in concept or execution.

What you won’t have to imagine, though, is what was said about this film by one of the premiere film critics of our generation, because Roger Ebert finished his career—abruptly, unfortunately for readers who would want his insights on through the many more years that both he and we expected from him—with his thoughts on To the Wonder.  Normally, I wouldn’t quote extensively from someone else’s comments, but given the circumstances I think it’s an appropriate tribute both to Ebert and to Malick:

“…Malick, who is surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision.

‘Well,’ I asked myself, ‘why not?’ Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren't many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren't many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn't that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?
There will be many who find ‘To the Wonder’ elusive and too effervescent. They'll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need” (the full review is available at  And if you're now in the proper mood to appreciate the artistry of To the Wonder, let me offer this musical "Equivalent," Paul Simon's evocative tune of "Hearts and Bones" (at [song from Simon's 1983 album of the same title but performance from Spain on 7/18/91, with Spanish subtitles if you're still working on your bilinguality—as we all should be), where the speculation is on "who has been damaged the most," an appropriate meditation for both To the Wonder and Mud in regard to this week's review.

But lest we get caught up too much in high art and eulogies (And I find out that I have to pay a copyright fee for using that trademarked “Thumbs Up” image above—how in the hell do you claim intellectual property rights for a thumb?), I’ll shift the tone with a final song link for To the Wonder which is not an “Equivalent” as with the more serious previous offerings but just a silly play on words, relevant (sort of) to the film’s title and the haunting use of France (to imply a more sophisticated, beaconing place than Oklahoma [sorry, Sooners] among other things), Stevie Wonder’s great hit, “My Cherie Amour,” at, presented to you in an old music video from 1969 (when he was a lad of 19, just a couple of years younger than me), the year the song came out on the album of the same name.  Enjoy this lively music before we move east from Oklahoma to Arkansas and Mud, because when we head out toward the Mississippi River there won’t be much sunshine once Stevie’s gone.

The word “mud” often implies something messy, unwanted, repulsive to expected standards, and a deviation from the norms of a properly-functioning society.  Storms leave mud in their wake, requiring expensive and labor-intensive removal; children’s clothes covered with mud bring a nightmarish reality of filth into an otherwise acceptable living circumstance and must be purged from the intended environment; mud is even a hindrance to travel if it clogs roads and sidewalks, preventing the intended flow of transport.  All in all, mud is a mess that is usually celebrated only in very juvenile circumstances where social propriety is discounted or ignored, although it can bring great pleasure to those who simply revel in its presence.  Thus it is with Jeff Nichols’ film Mud, starring America’s favorite Southern reprobate, Matthew McConaughey, as the title character, one whose very name connotes a person not in acceptable social standing and who, in this case, is so disengaged from the rest of “respectable” society that he lives on an isolated island in the midst of the Arkansas River, hiding out in a small boat that was stranded far up in a large tree seemingly during the last flood of the river, trying to escape capture from a team of bounty hunters who want revenge after he killed the husband of his estranged girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), because Mud’s so smitten with her that he feels the need to protect her at all costs from circumstances (and men) he sees her threatened by (as we learn later, she’s not much distraught about the loss of her former husband and is on the run herself from the vicious brother, Carver [Paul Sparks], and father, King [Joe Don Baker, a great commanding presence to be back on screen and an example of perfect casting for the role, as are all of his cohorts], who are leading the pack of hunters in pursuit of Mud, not for justice but just vicious vengeance).  I’ll admit my lack of objectivity where McConaughey is concerned because I’ve found him to be so effective in his recent spate of distinctive Southerner roles that he’s had in the past few months—The Lincoln Lawyer (Brad Furman, 2011), Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2011; review in this blog in the May 24, 2012 posting), Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011; review in this blog in the August 30, 2012 posting), The Paperboy (Lee Daniels, 2012; review in this blog in the October 19, 2012 posting), and Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012; review in this blog in the July 4, 2012 posting)—but there’s another bias with my responses here as well.

While I’ve been vocal enough in my statements about the pleasure of leaving my home state of Texas for the California coast, I still have a deep-seated affinity for those who live their lives on or near the water because that was my life for many years in Galveston, a place that depends on shipping, fishing, and tourism and is constantly subject to natural devastation that can change the economy and the stability of residents’ lives in the course of a few days when hurricanes blow through (as the powerful Ike did most recently in 2008).  I’ve never made my living on the water, as do the principal settled characters in Mud, and I’m an ocean guy rather than a river rat, but I appreciate the lure of a large aquatic environment (yet, ironically, I’m very close to the Pacific Ocean now but rarely see it, although the San Francisco Bay factors into my travels quite a bit), understand the determination of some of the characters in Mud to maintain that heritage, and understand the lure of the flowing liquid, even though whatever romantic attraction it offers (embodied marvelously in Roy Orbison’s sadly rhythmic 1961 “Blue Bayou” at, even though its setting takes us a bit further down the Mississippi from the locale of Mud; and give Roy credit for capturing that sleepy liquid atmosphere after growing up in prairie towns of north Texas) comes with the challenges of natural disasters, intrusive regulations, and the simple danger of being surrounded by poisonous snakes.  This is as hardscrabble a life as is farming much further inland in the Midwest (especially now, as Dustbowl-implication droughts are returning to the region or the converse horror, floods, happening further north), requiring hardy souls to endure the challenges of daily existence.  Mud’s been on the road from this river area close to the small town of DeWitt, but he’s back now, ready for an even greater challenge of survival from another type of snake predator, but this one shoots rather than bites (besides, he’s already had a near-death experience from a snake bite so he’s now focused more on surviving the assault of a gang of 2-legged cold-blooded reptiles).

Mud’s a resilient dude, but given the ferocity of the force out to find him and the ambivalence of Juniper as to whether she wants to reconnect with Mud in the midst of this raging-testosterone collision, even a hardboiled survivor wearing a magic shirt (well, he’s still alive so maybe it’s helping more than we realize) and nails in his boot heels to ward off evil spirits needs some help, which arrives by chance when a couple of 14-year-old boys, the more-sympathetic-to-troublesome-situations Ellis (Tye Sheridan, to the right in the photo above), and the more-what’s-in-it-for-me-pragmatist Neckbone (Jacob Lofland; I guess there were already too many guys in the neighborhood named T-Bone, Hambone, and Wingbone) chance upon the stranded boat, then discover that it’s inhabited by the smooth-talking Mud, who seeks their assistance in finding needed supplies and tools to get the boat down out of the tree so he can make his escape to the wider world of the Mississippi River and beyond, presumably with Juniper in tow.  Neckbone (or Neck, as his close friends call him, proving the Southern propensity to not only give everyone a nickname but to even give the nickname a nickname) is more of a businessman in this operation, willing to cooperate but only to gain Mud’s pistol as payment for his contributions to the escape (besides, he’s got a lot less restriction on his movements and familial obligations as he’s only under the nominal care of his uncle Galen [the marvelous Michael Shannon, who’s got a relatively small role here but hopefully will be getting offers for years to come based on his extraordinary work in the equally extraordinary Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008) and his equally-troubled character in the equally-troubled story of Take Shelter (working with Nichols again in a very disturbing, possibly allegorical tale of imminent doom)]). Ellis, on the other hand, has plenty of restrictions on his movements because of the help needed by his stern father (Ray McKinnon) in keeping a small but steady income from the sale of river fish as well as the homefront tension between his parents (Dad known simply as Senior—or Sir where Ellis is concerned [the kid may be rebellious but he is properly respectful]—and Mom Mary Lee [Sarah Paulson]) where Dad’s desire to maintain the river life on their docked houseboat is conflicted with Mom’s desire to move inland (even to what’s-not-happening DeWitt, a place that could easily be the neighboring town of wherever Neil and Marina are in To the Wonder, despite the actual distance from east Arkansas to the great plains of Oklahoma), which brings even more tension to their on-the-verge-of-separation marriage because the houseboat’s in her name which means that if she’s not living in it the River Authority folks will just condemn it and tear it down in their efforts to enforce better control of the river, instead of the present situation of society’s marginal dwellers maintaining their squatter’s “trailer park” along the banks where crackpots such as across-the-river recluse neighbor Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) uses a rifle to keep the river snake population under control.  In the midst of all this turmoil, Ellis especially wants some stability, which gives him more empathy for Mud’s notorious situation because he admires how much Mud and Juniper “love each other,” a situation he’d like to share with local high school senior May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), who’s willing to lead him on a bit but ultimately can’t comprise her social standing with her in-crowd so Ellis feels the torturing pangs of spurned love early in his adolescence.

The catalyst for this film’s action is Juniper, who’s very conflicted over what to make of Mud’s undying devotion largely because his constant unsoliscited caretaking of her life never quite resolves anything for her nor does it fully convince her to accept Mud’s passion for her as a reason for returning the investment.  As it is in her attempted escape to DeWitt (where she and Mud go back a long way) she’s accosted by brutal Carver in her motel room, she understands Mud’s devotion to her and even promises to let the boys bring her to his island hideout before ditching that plan in favor of being the hospitality committee at a local bar, and ultimately she sees Mud from a distance as he finally makes his way to her temporary dwelling, but, just like in To the Wonder, this is not a romance destined to succeed so they part via the same exchange of letters that Ellis has helped deliver in their previous “negotiations,” allowing Juniper to essentially drift away from our story just before the hunters (from Texas of course; no wonder they’re so single-minded in their destructive determination) catch up with Mud trying to make contact with Ellis on his houseboat.  It would seem to be a one-sided massacre but old Tom across the river (who we’ve learned functioned as an unofficial stepdad for the essentially-parentless Mud over the years but has tried to break the connection in the present because of his disgust with Mud’s Juniper obsession which isn’t providing any benefits for anyone [although Juniper is glad to be rid of her ex-husband from the Carver/King clan, who apparently was as brutal as a spouse as his relatives are in the pursuit of his killer]) turns out to truly be an ex-CIA assassin (or at least is damn good with a high-powered rifle), so between his long-distance dispatching of the bounty hunters and Mud’s well-honed self-protection tactics our hero lives to recuperate from his wounds as Tom smuggles him down river to the mighty Mississip, onto a new life somewhere away from all that he’s disturbed by being in the DeWitt area.  After the chaos subsides we don’t see much more of Neckbone or Juniper but we get our finale with Ellis’ parents going through with the separation despite bonding a bit when their son was in trouble with the law and on the verge of death from a snake bite before Mud got him to a treatment center just in time.  With his former life behind him (the houseboat is demolished almost as soon as Mary Lee vacates it), Ellis has moved on from his obsession with May Pearl to the adjustment of his new land life in his Mom’s apartment, but budding adventures apparently await with a girl that exchanges glances with him, despite the advice he’s gotten from virtually every other male in the cast to stay away from the dangers of entanglements with women.  It’s not so much that he hasn’t learned the lessons they want to teach him as it is that he’s too devoted to the grand idea of love to believe that it must always end in tragedy, just as our sad protagonists in To the Wonder keep reaching for connections that elude them but not because they don’t make the effort.

Mud is not a pleasant experience and it’s certainly not as visually stunning and poetic as To the Wonder, but it carries a fascination anyway about believing passionately in the hope of something exciting and fulfilling coming into your life, even when all you experience is based on routine, boredom, antagonism, and the frustration of unfulfilled dreams.  The characters may be a bit familiar from a host of Southern-set melodramas (including the recent McConaughey catalogue noted above), while the sense of boys looking for adventure and finding a lot more than they bargained for may be reminiscent of coming-of-age influences from Mark Twain’s tales of Mississippi River life to movies such as Stand by Me (Rob Reiner, 1986—which, of course, conjures up another related song just too good to pass up so let’s take a diversionary stroll with Ben E. King while thinking about parallel but separate stories of kids and lovers as we sing along with "Stand by Me" at in a nice video collage that mixes the song and even bits of the movie), but despite any familiarities that underlie Mud what we get here is as old as Adam’s blind passion for Eve yet as original as you could want as all of these character conflicts push the boys in different directions and leave Ellis especially in a quandary as to whether Mud’s love for Juniper is as pure as he has convinced himself of or whether love is ever to be trusted (especially after the callous manner in which May Pearl dumps him—despite her secret admiration for his devotion).  Neckbone’s uncle sums up the conventional male view of women and their untrustworthiness with his counter of how men need to just use women as nothing but a means of helping them forget their troubles with previous women by citing the Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda” (1965) as just being about purging the bad memories of one lost love with the immediate-but-no-need-for-permenance pleasures of another, which is about all that most of the men of the DeWitt area seem to have need for in their battered lives.  But Mud is determined that if love can’t be more permanent and fulfilling than that then he’ll make it so by sheer determination, at least until he understands that his attempted reconnection with Juniper is just too dangerous for her if he can’t find a strategy for convincing her to escape the territory completely with him (even then they wouldn’t likely find any peace because those bounty hunters seem to be as doggedly determined as the Pinkerton-type detectives that finally chased our outlaw heroes out of the country in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [George Roy Hill, 1969]).

This dedication to the principle of love—despite the difficulty of ever achieving it—seems to take root in Ellis who ends our story ready for a new challenge, with a girl seemingly closer to his age this time, and a rousing rendition of “Rhonda” under the final credits so we’ll end in the same manner, with acknowledgement that passion as desired by Marina, Jane, Mud, and Ellis doesn’t always lead to fulfillment, as we’ve seen in both films under review this week, but at least it keeps hope alive, to give us some semblance of a better chance at some form of personal salvation than the soul-numbing blockages that impede Neil, Father Quintana, Juniper, and Elllis’ parents from ever reaching their heart’s desire until those clogged arteries can be flushed out.  As a strategy toward such unclogging, let’s all shake it loose with Al Jardine singing lead for a change on this classic at (Introduced by Andy Williams from a live broadcast in 1965; the video quality is terrible but at least Carl and Dennis were alive and Brian was in full harmonic mode; besides, it’s the Beach Boys singing one of their greatest hits, so what more justification do you need to listen to it?  Then, just to illustrate another aspect of personal passion, we have another version of the song at, which depends on other background vocalists to make up for the missing harmonies of the Wilson brothers on the original, but I can’t resist because it was the show I saw in Berkeley, CA from the June 1,  2012 concert [I doubt you can hear me singing from some 60 rows back but I was making an effort]).  As another song says, “love will find a way,” although it may break your heart a few times before the path is cleared of the underbrush that obscures your desired destination, just as these engaging films offer as many—if not more—failures than successes in their long and winding roads to satisfaction (thus, I finally leave you with a sentence that gives you some opportunities to find your own song links before we meet up again, so keep the melodies flowing as you focus more on the wonder that surrounds you, even though you may have to scrape the mud off first before you can begin to appreciate it).

If you’d like to know more about To the Wonder here are some suggested links: (17:29 interview with actors Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko from the Toronto Film Festival 9/9/11)

If you’d like to know more about Mud here are some suggested links:

Other video material on Mud was surprisingly hard to find but here are a few short clips from the film at,, (this one comes with French subtitles that might help you next time you’re floatin’ down the Mississippi toward N’awlins, lookin’ for a can of beans for dinner), and

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control, as well as problems we’ve encountered with the Google RSS Feed Alert when used in conjunction with iGoogle and Google Reader.

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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