“Hell of a thing: A Boat in a Tree…”
I’ve often mentioned on this blog and elsewhere my admiration for the great American writer Mark Twain in general and for his Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn tales in particular. So it soon became evident to me that I was going to be crazy about Mud, a contemporary yarn about life on the Mississippi River. It was made all the more enjoyable by the fact that sitting down to it I had no idea what the storyline was.
It’s a kind of coming-of-age drama that centres around two tough fourteen-year-old boys who are living on houseboats on the river. At first it seems that Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) is the dominant one in his friendship with Ellis (Tye Sheridan). However, despite being the more pragmatic and suspicious teenager, Neckbone actually looks up to his companion.
A deeply romantic young man and with a real sense of the importance of love, Ellis is also on the verge of disillusionment concerning such notions–unfortunately at the same time that he is going through that appalling period just before full manhood kicks in. His kind-hearted parents are talking about divorce, and with his first foray into young infatuation about to become dead in the water, he is already finding out a few things about life’s crueller side. Also, his home on the river is about to be destroyed. As his father tells him:
“Enjoy this river, son. Enjoy it while you live on it; ‘cause this way of life ain’t long for this world.”
All of this makes him a prime target when he and Neck come in contact with a charmingly seductive drifter who goes by the name of Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Mud has been living on a small island on the river, in a boat that has been left high in a tree after a flood. He has a fascinating store of folk lore and superstition; but more importantly he regales Ellis and the more sceptical Neck with a tale about how he is there waiting to be joined by his beloved Juniper (Reese Witherspoon); and Ellis soon becomes a rather enthusiastic go-between for the supposedly star-crossed lovers whilst also fetching food and equipment for Mud.
It’s not as simple as that, though. Mainly through a suitably grizzled old-timer called Tom, played by the great Sam Shepard, we find out that Mud is more of a sad fantasist than a romantic rogue. Tom has embraced a solitary life years before (“Some folks move to the river to work on it, others move to be on their own”) but he has been a father-figure to Mud in the past and has a genuine affection for him—not to mention an exasperated frustration. Mud, it transpires, has been following Juniper around for years with stars in his eyes, but it seems that she is really a self-centred and leggy blonde who is absolute Trouble with a capital T. And in fact now Mud has finally committed murder for her and finds himself hunted by both the State Police and a gang of mercenaries organised by King, the father of the man he killed, (Joe Don Baker).
Personally I could have done without the introduction of the bounty hunters but that’s really because I was enjoying the whole tone of the film before that. I also could have managed just fine without the almost obligatory scene where McConaughey’s shirt comes off. In regards to Mud’s superstition concerning his shirt (!) it is actually an important point; but up until then I had fully accepted that this guy had been living rough and hungry on an uninhabited island for several weeks. Hell, he even loses the Hollywood-style dental work. However, when the shirt came off it turned out that despite his permanent three-day growth of beard Mud had been saving the razors for making sure that his manly chest was perfectly shaved, enough to rouse the envy of a boy band member. Not to mention that he obviously had a fully-equipped gym hidden away somewhere.
But these were minor annoyances for me as I think that Mud is simply one of the year’s most interesting films. The cast is uniformly excellent, with even the most minor characters feeling fully-fleshed and helped in their performances by an outstanding script from writer-director Jeff Nichols.
With only three films to his credit– and having caught only two– he is now a name that I keenly look forward to seeing again. I missed his debut Shotgun Stories, but last year Take Shelter was one of my favourites and a very unexpected pleasure with a marvellous performance from Michael Shannon. (In fact Shannon is in this as well, in the small part of Neckbone’s Uncle Galen. Too small, but then I’d be happy out if Shannon was just strolling in the background, saying nothing. The guy is terrific.)
Bonnie Sturdevant plays the girl that Ellis thinks he’s in love with and his parents are wonderful, again in parts that I would have enjoyed seeing developed even farther, simply because I liked them: honest people going through a bad time. Sarah Paulson is the mother and the dad is Ray McKinnon, looking spookily like Dennis Hopper.
The music by David Wingo is one of those scores that feels as if it just grew organically out of the environment in which the movie is set; and that beautiful and haunting environment is captured perfectly by cinematographer (and already Nichols regular ) Adam Stone.
OK, OK, I know; I’m gushing. But no apologies are offered for that: like I said, it’s one of my favourite films of the year.