The recent (and so far successful) effort by Matthew McConaughey to rehabilitate his reputation and develop his craft gained momentum this past weekend with the release of MUD, a coming of age story set in the Mississippi delta. A limited release (363 screens) the film did respectable, if not extraordinary, business. (2.2M for the weekend.)

On the official website, the film, co-starring Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan and Sam Shepard, is described as follows: “an adventure about two boys, Ellis and his friend Neckbone, who find a man named Mud hiding out on an island in the Mississippi. Mud describes fantastic scenarios—he killed a man in Texas and vengeful bounty hunters are coming to get him. He says he is planning to meet and escape with the love of his life, Juniper, who is waiting for him in town. Skeptical but intrigued, Ellis and Neckbone agree to help him. It isn’t long until Mud’s visions come true and their small town is besieged by a beautiful girl with a line of bounty hunters in tow.”

While I’m not sure how a small town can be “besieged by a beautiful girl,” the short synopsis confirms much of what I gleaned from the trailer, which affirms the set up but withholds the likely resolution, suggesting that there is a thrilling mystery still to be encountered in the theater.

Thinking, vaguely, that I wanted to talk about editing in today’s post, I sought a trailer that moved slowly. And Mud does, for the first 85 seconds or so, only 44 edit choices are made, with shots allowed to breathe and dialogue to land. But then, the final minute, as is appropriate to the rising tension and increasing action, presents information at a much faster clip. In that sense, at least, the trailer follows the formula of a leisurely first act establishing the situation and characters. Set to a suspense-indicating string-heavy music cue, the first 30+ seconds prepares the revelation of the boy’s discovery–a boat in a tree and then the titular Mud (Mr. McConaughey), hiding out on an otherwise uninhabited delta island.

The second act, with a different cue and sunnier sensibility, traces the boy’s burgeoning entanglement with the charismatic outlaw, although the resonant bass note every few seconds reminds us to expect trouble. Then, as anticipated, the final act of the trailer arrives with a flourish of physical and gun violence, recriminations and rage, quickly and cross-cut to an insistent, galvanizing drumbeat. The trailer’s button returns to sepia tones and a calming image of the river flowing through the delta, with McConaughey’s husky comment characterizing what has transpired in the scenes just shown: “It’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it…A Hell of a thing,” he exhales, both deprecating and boasting as the title card appears and the trailer concludes.

While I don’t consider this a “problem trailer” or one especially resistant to interpretation, there are a couple of visual gestures that invite analysis. Do they just “look good” or do they also advance story, character or thematic development? I’m thinking in particular of the medium to long shot of a character–Mud in one; Juniper (Witherspoon) in another–in which a passing bus, truck or train car temporarily blocks our view and conceals the edit. It’s like a wipe done outside the lens (or processor), produced by the passage across the screen of a 40′ rectangle of metal.

In the first, Mud disappears behind the screen of the train car as if by magic, vanishing, out of sight, reach and danger. The v.o., significantly,has Mud saying, “a whole lot of folks are looking for me.” In the second, Juniper stands outside a second story motel room, as a bus passes between her and the camera. After its passage, she is now in closeup. A literal reading of the manifest content might conclude that Mud will become progressively less known or knowable (i.e. “see-able”) as the plot develops, whereas Juniper, earlier presented as “trouble” and “trash,” will surprise us (revealing herself and crucial information, too?) as the film progresses. Any readers who happen to have seen the film are cordially invited to kindly confirm or disprove this hypothesis.

The other editorial choice that leaves me wondering whether its merely cool or cool and also significant, is the smash zoom-out on cards in the final act. The first of these present review blurbs, with their authors and publications specified; the next ones are of the cast. All the copy appears against a milky-blue background. These inter-titles/cards are rhythmically interspersed, coming every other beat, starting with the camera/lens pressed up against the text which flies out and into frame with a percussive thump. A couple of these thumping zoom outs provide a match to action on screen. Juniper being thrown against a wall is repeated/echoed by the card plonking into place. But what of it? Editors are trained to cut on action. But is the relationship established by the match any more than visual cleverness? I’m not sure.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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