Film Review: ‘Mud’

Having previously impressed with his 2008 debut Shotgun Stories and the infinitely wider-seen Take Shelter (both starring the excellent Michael Shannon), Arkansas-born director Jeff Nichols returns to his roots for Mud (2012), a gloriously old-fashioned swamp story of honour, trust and betrayal. Featuring one of the breakthrough performances of the year from 16-year-old Tye Sheridan – first seen in Terrence Malick’s 2011 Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life – as well as stellar turns from Matthew McConaughey, Ray McKinnon and Sam Shepard, Nichols may well have crafted his finest film to date.

Sheridan plays Ellis, a teenage boy living with his ma (Sarah Paulson) and pa (McKinnon) on their ramshackle houseboat. Teaming up with best friend Neckbone (assured débutante Jacob Lofland), the two inquisitive youngsters head off to a nearby island to investigate a sail boat stranded high up in a tree – presumably washed ashore during a recent storm. Unfortunately, the stricken vessel already has an owner, an enigmatic stranger calling himself ‘Mud’ (McConaughey) who asks for the boys’ help in dislodging the craft. As the plot thickens, Ellis and Neckbone discover this dishevelled runaway to be quite the Casanova, waiting as he is for his childhood sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

Thus begins a slow-burning, utterly enchanting fable of love and loss on the delta, with as many gradual twists and turns as the gargantuan Mississippi itself. Whilst Mud very much belongs to the magnetic Sheridan, substantial credit should be similarly reserved for McConaughey’s titular stray, who gives as complete a performance as we’ve perhaps yet seen from the charismatic Texan. A tall tale specialist with a symbolic love/hate serpentine connection (once-bitten is now certainly twice shy, hence the reminding snakes tattooed upon his left arm), Mud quickly evolves into just the sort of male role model Ellis has been striving to find, his father emasculated by his own poisonous self-doubt.

Though comparisons have rightly been made between Nichols’ latest and the literary works of Mark Twain (the man responsible for those two mythic Deep South icons Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn), there is also a tangible dose of Spielbergian symmetry (circa 1982) at play throughout Mud. As their relationship deepens, Ellis begins to mirror McConaughey’s old-school romantic and, in particular, his cavalier approach to the fairer sex. Even when it’s revealed early on that Mud is in fact an armed fugitive, this calm and collected retains much of the moral high-ground – which is more than can be said of the film’s other, far less likeable representations of faltering masculinity (an enjoyable Shannon cameo aside).

Wholeheartedly succeeding where recent comparable American independent efforts have failed – Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) is a clear reference point – Nichols’ triumphant backwater bromance offers everything you could want from a film of its ilk. Adopting a similar ‘sins of the father’ framework to Cianfrance’s sleeper hit before realising its ambitions of being more than a blustering revenge-tragedy, Mud seeps into the psyche like silt before clinging to the heartstrings like clay. After two near-misses, Nichols is finally on the verge of stamping his authority as one of American cinema’s most exciting new filmmakers.

Daniel Green