I'm looking forward to Robert Redford's next film--anything to help me forget his latest, The Company You Keep. There was ample reason to be optimistic. Not only is the story interesting (a 21st century businessman haunted by a violent secret), but the film showcases the best cast in recent memory--Redford, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Chris Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Brendan Gleeson, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott and Anna Kendrick.
But one big problem remains: The film is uncommonly dull, and despite its star wattage, the actors appear as if they desperately want to be in another movie. The exception is Shia LaBeouf, woefully miscast as an investigative reporter. LaBeouf, whom we usually see battling Transformers this time of year, races through The Company You Keep as if he were looking for a robot to confront.
Critics dismissed Redford's early films, marginalizing his talent with his good looks. I couldn't disagree more. Redford is a singular talent; his work in front of the lens (The Candidate, Three Days of the Condor, Out of Africa) is just as impressive as his skill in a director's chair (Ordinary People, A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show). Unfortunately, Redford pulls up short on both with The Company You Keep.
Conversely, I have nothing but good news to report on a movie with the worst title of the year: Mud.
In a southeast Arkansas town that is more swamp than city, two 14-year-old boys happen upon Mud, a mystery man with a bizarre plan to rescue his lifelong love, Juniper, from a life of abuse. But the muddy waters hold nothing but danger around every river bend.
Audiences have a pretty good idea that this won't end well, but it's more a matter of who will ultimately live to tell the story.
Mud's character is full of dimension, and Matthew McConaughey, in his best role to date, knows when and how to rein in his performance. Reese Witherspoon is also fine as Juniper. But the real star here is 15-year-old Tye Sheridan as Ellis, the film's protagonist. Sheridan appears in practically every frame of Mud and his breakout is reminiscent of Jennifer Lawrence's performance in Winter's Bone. In fact, Mud feels a bit like the dangerous journey that was Winter's Bone, only Mud has a lot more sun and water.
"The river brings a lot," an adult warns the restless Ellis. "Some of it is worth keeping, some needs to be let go."
Ellis chooses to keep a little, but lets much of his innocence drift away in the muddy river. His story feels like a modern tale that might have been penned by Mark Twain.
Mud entrusts its audience with authenticity, smart dialogue and mature performances. To that end, it's a bit like the movies Redford used to make.