It’s almost impossible not to compare Jeff Nichols’ Mud (2012) to Mark Twain’s colloquial prose for the way it mythologises the Deep South, instantly capturing a sense of all that is deeply American. Yet, the breadth of this masterfully-told contemporary fable feels entirely original (and comfortingly familiar), told through child-like eyes that find adventure just around the river bend. Set on the banks of the Mississippi, we encounter two young adventurers, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who set off to find a tattered boat that hangs mysteriously halfway up a tree on a seemingly uninhabited nearby island.
Having found their treasure they also come face-to-face with a mysterious stranger know only as ‘Mud’ (Matthew McConaughey), who states that the boat belongs to him. After striking a deal, Mud gains the trust of the wary teens – in particular Ellis – who feels a strange sense of kinship with the island dweller, and agrees to help him repair the boat so Mud can escape. There’s a dreamlike quality to the island, where the rolling river constantly licks the sun-drenched shoreline, suggesting a place out of time, away from the bustle and troubles of everyday life.
Mud’s tall-tales of American Indians are charming and, much like the young boys, we quickly become enchanted by his character. Yet, unlike the trusting teens, we know from experience that something else is at play here, reinforced by the constant symbolic reminders of the deadly, cottonmouth snakes that populate the island. Cautiously, the well-crafted plot reveals more details, pulling us away from boyish adventures to the more painful reality of the situation at hand. We’ve already heard that Ellis’ parents are divorcing, a decision that rips the boy out from the world he knows. Neckbone, contrastingly, is an orphan whose only guidance comes in the form of his goofy, freewheeling uncle, Galen (Michael Shannon).
As the boys and the enigmatic Mud bond, Nichols’ film gracefully charts the pain of that moment when the innocence of youth is lost and the beautiful lies that preserve our childhoods are shown to be the illusion they always were. The plot flows downstream, increasing in pace, building to an unforeseen conclusion, with a violent outburst that makes great use of Sam Shepard as the tough-as-old-leather Tom, a shadowy figure from Mud’s past. This welcome narrative tangent feels more like a western than the boyish (yet incredibly eloquent) yarns of Twain.
Rising stars Sheridan and Lofland both give outstanding performances as the two young leads along with McConaughey, who has in recent years risen to be one of the finest actors working today. Above all, with Mud Nichols has crafted a moving and tender love story, one that peels away the sweet-smelling apple blossom to show both the real pain and beauty of love, whilst allowing space for the necessity of a few lofty yarns to apply salve to unhealed wounds.
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