Film review: Mud (12A)

I KNOW I’m not alone in saying that I’ve been enjoying Matthew McConaughey much more since he stopped appearing in mirthless romcoms and started subverting his son-of-Paul-Newman looks with roles in Magic Mike, Killer Joe and Bernie.

Matthew McConaughey in Mud

Mud (12A)

Director: Jeff Nichols

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Running time: 130 minutes

Star rating: * * * *

He may not be the biggest bulb in the Hollywood socket but he’s become something of a pin-up for southern gothic pictures: slightly sweaty, subtly menacing – and frequently shirtless. McConaughey may be 43, but his stomach muscles are as familiar to us as the breakfast toast rack. The six-pack is back on show, artfully dirtied up, for Mud, in which he plays the ­title character, a mysterious fugitive hiding out in a boat that’s been stuck up a tree by the Mississippi River. Now boats don’t end up in trees ­unless there’s been a violent storm, or it has been put there by a writer-director making a movie about beached, rudderless folk who rather fancies a bit of symbolic colour from the start.

That man would be Jeff ­Nichols, whose last film was an apocalyptic piece of paranoia called Take Shelter. Mud is a swampier story, with ­almost as many digressions as the Mississippi. Mud is discovered by two 14-year-old boys, best friend Ellis (Tree Of Life’s Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who had hoped to claim the boat for themselves. Mud offers them a deal: he needs food, engine parts for the boat, and a way to get a message to his true love. If they help him, they can have the boat when he’s done with it.

Neckbone is sceptical, but Ellis is more willing. The boy is living a marginal life while his parents’ marriage falls acrimoniously apart, and he’s desperate to find a model of all-consuming romantic love that he can apply to his own high school crush (Bonnie Sturdivant), even though Mud may have killed a man, and isn’t entirely truthful.

The echoes of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn are deliberate; not only does the film broadly track the story of two boys attempting to help a runaway, Sam Shepard plays a character called Tom Blankenship, Twain’s real-life inspiration for Huckleberry Finn. Yet despite all the care Nichols takes with themes, motifs and character detail, his third act is messy and off-key, and he allows himself to become way too enchanted with some of his deep-fried characters. Take Shelter’s Michael Shannon pops up as Neckbone’s casual guardian uncle in a subplot that could easily have been snipped, and although Reese Witherspoon’s damaged, trashy on/off love is more necessary, she’s also an underwritten stereotype. A pity, because McConaughey and Sheridan are great, and Mud has some interesting things to say about southern manhood, and is observant about the struggle between head and heart, even if it is less forthcoming on how you get a boat out of a tree.

On selected release from Friday