Film review: Mud

Matthew McConaughey in Mud. Picture: Contributed
Matthew McConaughey in Mud. Picture: Contributed
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BARELY a month seems to go by at the moment without Matthew McConaughey delivering a brilliant and surprising performance.

Mud (15)

Director: Jeff Nichols

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland

* * * *

Having spent years getting his top off in deadweight romantic comedies, films such as The Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, The Paperboy and, most recently, Bernie have seen him finally finding a way to channel his effortless Southern charm and movie star charisma into a diverse array of rich, funny and fascinating characters. His latest film Mud is no exception. He plays the title character, a wayward drifter hiding out on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. With crooked teeth, tousled hair, crosses in his boots (“to ward off evil spirits”) and arms covered in snake tattoos, he looks like an older, modern day reject from a Mark Twain novel – and with a penchant for tall tales, not to mention a romantic conception of himself as an outlaw driven by his love for his childhood sweetheart, he sounds like one too.

At first sight, though, it’s hard to tell if he’s the sort of man who’ll be a friend or a foe. That’s partly because we’re introduced to him via the film’s true protagonist, 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan). Along with his fantastically named best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), he’s a frequent visitor to the island, having become enthralled – in the way that only young teens can – by the unexplained presence of a boat perched in one of the island’s trees. On their latest trip, Ellis and Neckbone realise that someone is actually living in the boat, and when they subsequently run into Mud, there’s an uneasy tension as both parties size each other up. Eventually, though, Ellis (aided by the somewhat warier Neckbone) agrees to help Mud, first by getting him food, then by acting as a go-between with the love-of-his life, a tarnished beauty called Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) whose intoxicating hold over Mud is the reason he’s on the run from some very violent men.

All of which might sound like the set-up for a very specific type of genre film, a variation, perhaps, on Night of the Hunter in which violence and the corruption of innocence are never far from the surface. But while those elements are certainly somewhere in Mud’s DNA, its ability to constantly surprise makes it a little less easy to classify beyond, perhaps, simply calling it a “Jeff Nichols film.” If that name doesn’t ring any bells, that’s because Nichols has only just started to emerge as one of American cinema’s most prodigiously talented filmmakers. Breaking through a few years ago with Shotgun Stories, a swaggering tale of familial rivalry in the Deep South, and following up with 2011’s Take Shelter, a remarkable slice of apocalyptic dread for our economically blighted times, Nichols switches gear again to create his most accessible and poignant film to date.

At heart Mud is a tough but tender coming-of-age story, but it’s also a story about fathers and sons and what masculinity means. Nichols brings this out by contrasting Ellis’s increasing infatuation with Mud with his changing perception of his own father (played Ray McKinnon), a decent-seeming, hard-working man whose marriage to Ellis’s mother (Sarah Paulson) is falling apart for reasons he can’t quite bring himself to confront. As such, Ellis (superbly played by Sheridan) is repeatedly told to be wary of women, a warning we see him frequently and pleasingly railing against.

It’s hard not to smile, for instance, when he wins the attention of a girl a couple of years older than him by nonchalantly and fearlessly punching out a high school senior giving her grief. Ditto when he later thinks nothing of throwing himself into the fray as he stumbles across a man beating up Juniper. Gallant to a fault, he’s the sort of dreamy kid who so wants to believe in love and chivalry that you just know he’s destined for epic heartbreak. The question is: when that day comes, will it make him or break him? Nichols answers that in a wonderful way, but not before adding a simmering tension to proceedings by exploiting the anxiety you feel for Ellis as he negotiates this tricky path.

That he does this without also using Ellis to hold the audience to the sort of emotional ransom lesser filmmakers often do when building dramas around minors in tough situations is a further sign of his skill as a storyteller – as is the way he segues into the film’s action-heavy finalé to bring an exciting climax without betraying the characters.

Great storytelling and great filmmaking doesn’t always go hand-in-hand these days, but with Mud, Nichols makes both look easy.