Sundance Film Festival 2013 | Mud and Crystal Fairy
With the film festival circuit basically running year-round, one of the benefits of attending a major fest is the opportunity to see titles that screened earlier elsewhere. Case in point: Some eight months after its premiere at Cannes 2012, Jeff Nichols's Mud screened yesterday for critics at Sundance. I was less enamored than many of the filmmaker's last effort, Take Shelter, which—to these eyes, anyway—made some very critical missteps in its home stretch. Mud furthers my impression that Nichols's work behind the camera far exceeds his efforts at the keyboard.
If Shotgun Stories (2007) found the writer-director taking up the Southern-poetic-realism mantle of friend David Gordon Green—the latter of whom also has a film, Prince Avalanche, screening in Park City—then this is his Undertow: a boyhood adventure yarn, set on and around a raging river. Two Arkansas middle-schoolers (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, both excellent) travel to a nearby island, find an abandoned boat stuck in a tree, and meet Matthew McConaughey's eponymous outlaw hermit. Soon the boys are playing gopher for this wanted man, getting mixed up in his romantic and legal troubles while dodging both their guardians and some nasty customers on the hunt for Mud.
Nichols displays his typical flair for small-town minutiae and flavorful rural slang; like Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, the movie works best when just quietly tracing the rhythms of its richly sketched milieu. But atmosphere can't carry the entire day, especially in a nearly two-and-a-half-hour film. Repetitiveness remains Nichols's worst habit as a writer: Gray's troubled teen clocks someone in the jaw at least four times, while the unexceptional plot drags its boy heroes out to the island and back so often that the locale loses all sense of awed-adolescent wonder. There also some oddly misogynistic undertones to the story, which stops just short of equating its unfaithful female characters—among them Reese Witherspoon, largely wasted—to venomous serpents.
Mostly you're left to just admire the film's performances, including fine turns by Sam Shepard (as an aged sharpshooter), Nichols regular Michael Shannon (doing his usual oddball thing) and the good-in-everything-these-days McConaughey. The one-time ab-flasher loses his shirt only once, at his character's low point, which I choose to read as some sort of meta commentary on the trajectory of his career. Or maybe I'm just sleep deprived.
In any case, Mud isn't the only Sundance selection this year to be named after one of its characters. Michael Cera plumbs new depths of obnoxious-American solipsism in Crystal Fairy, one of the fest's two featured collaborations between the actor and Chilean writer-director Sebastián Silva. (The other, Magic Magic, has been relegated to the Midnight competition.) Putting a bravely unsympathetic spin on his usual nervous-dork routine, Cera plays twentysomething Jamie, whose interest in Chile—where he's traveled for an extended vacation—seems limited mainly to the drug selection. Just when you wonder if you can stomach 100 minutes of this jackass globe-trotter, the movie introduces a just-as-intolerable foil: the titular "free spirit," a hippy-dippy fellow tourist played—in an impressively committed rendering of New Age posturing—by Gaby Hoffmann. Meeting her at a party, a coked-out Jamie invites Crystal Fairy along on a road trip he's planned—a decision he comes to greatly, immediately regret. (Her morning-after phone call prompts a hilarious swell of horror-movie strings.)
A road comedy of discomfort, Crystal Fairy suggests what Y Tu Mamá También might have looked like had it starred pretentious gringos trying to out-douchey-American each other. I resisted the film on principle for a while—skewering clueless tourists is basically shooting fish in a barrel—but was eventually won over by its ramshackle plotting and loopy non sequiturs. The irritating duo are accompanied by a trio of laid-back brothers (Juan Andrés Silva, José Miguel Silva and Agustín Silva, the director's real-life siblings), and their straight-man reactions are often funnier than the boorish behavior they dutifully tolerate. In the film's most damning indictment of phony-baloney enlightenment, Crystal Fairy goads the group into sharing its most private fears, only to then spout off some scripted nonsense about the Mayan calendar when her own turn arrives. And while a late bid for pathos feels kind of disingenuous—"everybody hurts, even assholes," Silva seems to be saying—it's hard to dislike a film that punctuates its most dramatic scene with its funniest, most flippant line. Now pardon me while I scramble to work Magic Magic into my schedule.
Note: This post originally misstated Mud actor Tye Sheridan's name. It's been corrected.