Mud and Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

Matthew McConaughey scores again, Ricky Jay defies belief.

Matthew McConaughey’s mid-career resurgence is a glorious thing, and it continues with Mud. Over the past decade, McConaughey has sometimes wasted his talent in dim rom-coms (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold) or just coasted on his formidable abs (in films like Sahara and the deplorable vanity project Surfer, Dude). But in recent years he has taken on better material (The Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie, Killer Joe), and last year he lit up the screen, first as the manic strip-club owner in Magic Mike, and then, in a major left-turn, as the troubled reporter with a taste for rough trade in the incomparably sleazy The Paperboy. Now, extending his streak, there’s this.  

Mud is the third film by writer-director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter), and it’s set in Nichols’ home state of Arkansas, in the Delta bayous along the Mississippi River. The director’s intimate familiarity with the people here – their rough houseboats tethered along the shore, their daily foraging for fish and oysters to sell in the inland towns – enables him to present us with a unique world that’s fully realized and rich in detail.

The story is a species of Southern Gothic with an undercurrent of Mark Twain (Nichols cites The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a model). We watch it unfold through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy named Ellis (Tye Sheridan, of The Tree of Life). Ellis and his friend Neckbone (able newcomer Jacob Lofland) have discovered an abandoned boat – a small cabin cruiser – on an island out in the middle of the river. It’s wedged into the upper limbs of a tree (this is a land of storms and floods), and they want to claim it for a secret fortress. But the boat turns out to be already occupied, by a scruffy stranger called Mud (McConaughey). Mud assures the boys he won’t be around long – he’s waiting for a woman named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), his longtime love, and when she arrives they’ll cruise off down the river to the Gulf of Mexico, in search of a new life.

Mud eventually admits that he’s a fugitive from the law. Not long ago Juniper, a woman of wandering affections, became involved with another man, and after he beat her up, Mud tracked the creep to Texas and shot him dead. Now the police are closing in and the dead man’s father (Joe Don Baker) is on his way with a group of hired thugs, intent on dispensing lethal justice. Mud is safe on this island for the moment; he has a pistol and a lucky shirt (and an apparently inexhaustible supply of cigarettes). But he needs food, and a new engine for the boat. Ellis, a budding romantic, is impressed that Mud is risking his life for the woman he loves. (“She’s like a dream you don’t wanna wake up from,” Mud says.) Ellis agrees to help this likeable outlaw, and he persuades Neckbone to assist him.

The movie is about the varieties of love and the hazards by which they are so often beset. Ellis’ parents (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon, in perfectly weighted performances), still love each other, but their marriage is cracking apart anyway. Ellis himself pines for an older girl at his school named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), and her seeming unavailability is breaking his heart. Mud, a local boy too, was raised by a man named Blankenship (Sam Shepard), now a grumpy recluse who spends his time shooting snakes from the deck of his houseboat; but when Mud appeals to his old guardian for help in this time of deepest need, Blankenship turns him away. The story also has one inscrutable factor: Neckbone’s Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon, in his third Nichols film). After Galen inadvertently discovers where Mud is hiding, we’re never sure what he’s going to do about it.

The movie has an old-fashioned, unhurried pace; and while the story is steadily suspenseful, and there’s even some violent action, Nichols never shortchanges his characters by rushing past their sorrows. The actors are quietly excellent. Witherspoon successfully stretches herself as a woman accustomed to braving indignities. (She shops at the local Piggly Wiggly in cutoffs and heels topped with an alarming black eye.) Juniper’s love for Mud is real, but so is her wayward nature, and she knows it. And Sheridan, who’s in nearly every scene, never overplays, never settles for easy emotion. He’s strikingly good

But McConaughey is really at the center of things, and he maintains the film’s most difficult balancing act. He’s playing a character who’s clearly dangerous, but he can’t come off as scary to the kids who befriend him (and with whom he spends most of his screen time). His Mud is a shabby bundle of recognizable human confusions. He’s a backwoods romantic crouching in blind hope as darkness falls all around him. “There’s fierce powers at work in the world,” he tells the two boys. It’s a lesson they’re just beginning to learn.            

Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

It might be said that Ricky Jay is the most astonishing magician of our time, but that’s not quite accurate. As fellow conjurer Penn Jillette frequently takes pains to point out, there is no such thing as “magic” – there is only illusion. But Ricky Jay’s mastery of illusion is magical – he creates a sense of wonder with little more than a deck of cards. In the new documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, we watch him ply his craft for the better part of two hours, often in close-up shots that would seem to afford no cover for deception. And at the end we still have no idea how he does what he does.

Jay is now 64, and seeing him in person is quite difficult. His occasional shows, staged by his friend David Mamet, the playwright and director, sell out almost instantly. (Mamet has employed Jay as an actor in five of his movies, launching him on a secondary career that has included appearances in such pictures as Boogie Nights and Magnolia; he has also found steady work as a magic consultant on Ocean’s Thirteen and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, among other films.)

I won’t describe Jay’s set-piece amazements, which are accompanied by a nonstop stream of droll patter (a form of indirection in itself); part of the enjoyment of the movie is watching him pull these wonders off. He speed-shuffles cards (with his left or his right hand, doesn’t matter), cuts them, fans them, manipulates them in mystifying ways – and we’re repeatedly dumbfounded. We learn that these tricks are very carefully constructed, which accounts for a key part of Jay’s technique: he dazzles his audience with what would seem to be an impossible card trick – and then tops it, and then tops it again. The mind reels in delight.

Jay also talks at length about his life, or at least those parts of it he’s willing to reveal. (He never speaks in any detail about his parents, from whom he was estranged very early on.) Growing up in Brooklyn, he was mentored by a grandfather who was an amateur magician and who introduced him to such celebrated illusionists as Max Malini (a contemporary of Houdini) and Al Flosso (“the Coney Island Fakir”). He made his first local-TV appearance at the age of seven, and quickly moved up: we see him in old tapes, with a mane of hair reaching halfway down his back, guesting on popular shows hosted by Dinah Shore and Mike Douglas. We see him hoodwinking amateur magician Steve Martin (now a close friend) and we hear his tale about appearing at New York’s Electric Circus, a psychedelic nightclub of the 1960s, on a bill with Ike and Tina Turner and Timothy Leary.

Jay is also a scholar of the history of magic, and a collector of rare memorabilia: vintage posters and books, antique dice, and so forth. He has also written several books, the first of which, published in 1977, is titled Cards as Weapons. (His oddest skill is flinging cards across a stage to lodge in the “pachydermatous outer skin” of a watermelon.)

Jay says that successful magic is mainly a matter of “leading the mind to its own defeat.” Which is interesting to know, but still doesn’t really explain how he can sit down with two people who are watching his hands from inches away and baffle them over and over with what he calls his “card-table artifice.” At one point in the film, a British journalist tells about an afternoon she spent with Jay that ended at a random suburban diner, where he suddenly conjured up, out of nowhere, an illusion – “a supreme piece of artistry” – that was so astounding, she’s still marveling at it. By the end of the picture, we know how she feels.   

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  • MSimon||

    Mamet? An interesting guy back in the St. Nicholas Theater days. He would share. The usual.

  • jelmel||

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  • Jesus H. Christ||

    I can't believe I'm reading the words "Matthew McConaughey" and "resurgence" and "glorious" all together. Loder, you are dead to me.

  • ||

    Oysters in Arkansas? Hmmmm. Must be a new fresh water variety that I am unfamiliar with.

  • KL||

    Yeah, you'd think mussels or something. But in the movie, oysters it is....

  • KL||

    And apparently there are fresh-water oysters -- although in Africa and South America, near as I can determine...

  • Paul.||

    I was a Ricky Jay follower from way back in the day, and my last memory of him discussing the word "Magician" is that he was very careful to say that he was not a Magician. He pointedly said he was a "card mechanic".

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  • ||

    Wow, that's like... magic!!!!

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