The Angel’s Share: 3.75/5
Escaping a past littered with unlawful behavior is probably a mighty challenge, if only because such a life viciously circles back on a human being. In the case of Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a young man soured by the street life, he finds little hope in his existence. Days after beating a rival to a bloody pulp, Robbie receives a shocking amount of leniency from the court system, as he’s sentenced to community payback. This is great for Robbie because he has a child on the way, but the release leaves him susceptible to the streets, and the violent attacks of his victim’s friends. By no means is Robbie devoid of morality or decency, but his rehabilitation into society is grossly undercut by his girlfriend’s disbelieving father and society’s disinterest in trusting a convicted criminal. Robbie finds a shred of hope in his community payback group, and its leader, Harry (John Henshaw). On a random field trip to a whiskey distillery, which was secretly setup by Harry, Robbie finds his calling in life: whiskey flavor profiler. Ironically, Robbie’s future relies heavily on a tool that usually devours chances at social redemption. Once Robbie acquires his vessel to legitimacy, The Angel’s Share evolves from a gritty survival tale into a loose-lipped comedy imbued with the flights of a fantasy film.
Miraculously, despite its shift in focus and tone, where Robbie’s familial issues slip into the background and a lighthearted heist takes precedence, The Angel’s Share works. I don’t understand why the screenplay abandons its hard-nosed perspective in the second half, especially when its fairy tale ending sends a mixed message, but the narrative dissonance doesn’t undermine the film’s overarching heart. Allowing for a level of continuity through the film’s nearly disparate parts is the impressive lead performance from Brannigan, who features the grisly attitude necessary for Robbie’s tumultuous street life to register, while excavating a desperate yearning for salvation. Accompanying Brannigan’s performance are a collection of soulful, hilarious, and engaging performances from the supporting cast, most of which emanate from the motley crew Robbie surrounds himself with. The charming cast, combined with the need to see Robbie escape his demons, makes The Angel’s Share an extremely likable film. Sure, it’s a bit off-kilter, and despite my invested in interest in narrative consistency, it’s hard not to root for a man breaking the criminal cycle.
Reality has a way of draining hope from even the most optimistic of people. Perhaps this is why we often wish to revisit our youth, where our innocence flows as uninhibited as a river. Being ignorant to life’s damaging truths grants a kid like Ellis (Tye Sheridan) the opportunity to believe in something as mystical and intangible as love. One day, in search of a distant island that houses a boat lodged into a tree, Ellis and his friend (Jacob Lofland) come across a mysterious drifter who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Soiled and sporting a gun, Mud’s presence on a water locked piece of land is simple: he’s waiting to rendezvous with the love of his life, a blonde southern bell by the name of Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). With his parent’s marriage slowly dying in front of him, Ellis finds himself drawn to the romantic story of a rugged man seeking refuge in the wild as he patiently relishes the touch of his lover. So, Ellis and Neckbone agree to aid Mud in his adventure, which mostly consists of the boys providing him with the necessary tools to remove the mystical boat from the tree. As you can probably imagine, a man like Mud hiding in isolation is likely doing so because the past is nipping at his heels. Despite his good intentions, Mud’s sullied past ends up dragging Ellis into certain danger but it also opens up the young man to life’s varying lessons.
The biggest lesson delivered to Ellis is the unshakeable complexities of love, which he unearths from his first relationship going sour, his parent’s divorce, and Mud’s unbridled passion for Juniper. An adolescent fumbling through love is a typical trope for a coming of age film, but writer/director Jeff Nichols delivers the expected lessons with sincere emotion. Nichols’ writing is wonderfully rendered by Tye Sheridan, a child actor that performs so naturally it’s hard to envision Ellis as anything but authentic. Yet, despite our lead’s impressive performance, the best bit of acting comes from McConaughey as the reserved Mud. Beyond his jilted teeth and dirt covered face, McConaughey exposes Mud as a hopeless romantic driven to extremes. McConaughey certainly provides Mud with interesting layers, but the mystery surrounding his character is not really, well, mysterious. He feels more systematic than enigmatic. Considering the setting and the rich culture of river living, Mud, the story and the titular character, unfolds in less than dramatic fashion. Perhaps its Nichols’ direction or even the film’s methodical pace, but the film itself feels pedestrian. Rarely does it elicit an overpowering sense of significance from scene to scene. There are fine dramatic moments within, but they’re as fleeting as time, leaving the film to feel more mundane than magical.