Film review of ‘Mud’ : Its name is mud, but of the glorious variety

Appearing from a boat that is inexplicably suspended high in a tree on an island in a community off the Mississippi river, comes the eponymous Mud (a career best for McConaughey – in spite of his obligatory shirt removal) living a near-feral existence. He claims to have taken the life of another man in defending the honour of his life-long sweetheart, Juniper.

However, our protagonist is not  Mud, but a boy named Ellis. Portrayed by relative newcomer Sheridan (previously in an almost-silent role in Terence Malick’s The Tree Of Life) – who exhibits a similar kind of barnstorming, star-making magic to Jennifer Lawrence in 2011’s Winter’s Bone – he and his friend Neckbone (Lofland) soon find themselves running errands for Mud. Unable to leave his hiding place in the woods – where he’s waiting for an opportunity to abscond with Juniper – he fears being picked up by the police, or worse, by criminals connected to the family of the man he murdered.

It starts innocently enough, with the boys acquiring canned goods to aid his woodland survival, but soon escalates to higher stakes, such as delivering love letters to Juniper, who is now being constantly monitored by several parties. Of course, there’s more to all this than meets the eye, but young Ellis is determined not to look too closely. He needs to believe in the existence of such things as truth and love because his parent’s marriage is disintegrating rapidly. Perhaps if he can help bring Mud and Juniper back together, that will somehow compensate for his lack of control over the storm that’s brewing at home.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols is easily one of the most interesting new talents to emerge from American cinema. His second film Take Shelter was one of my highlights of last year, but here is a film that confirms all of that promise, and then some. He continues his collaboration with the always excellent Michael Shannon – this being his third film with the actor who is perhaps best known as FBI agent-come-gangster Nelson Van Alden in the consistently excellent Boardwalk Empire. The lead in Take Shelter, Shannon is relegated to a small but memorable role in Mud. There are also appearances from stalwart Sam Shepard and a beguiling Reese Witherspoon as the elusive Juniper. There’s not a hair out of place here – every actor brings their A game, but it is Sheridan and McConaughey who you’ll take home with you.

Like the recent Winter’s Bone before it, Mud harkens back to the golden days of American independent filmmaking in the 1970s. The film evokes the tenacity of cinema like Midnight Cowboy or Five Easy Pieces and it has the narrative ancestry that stretches further back, to before cinema, when storytelling was a practised art and the process of capturing an audience, heart and head was expertly achieved with seemingly no effort, keeping all the mechanics well hidden. There’s a timelessness to the proceedings, meaning that although the film is set in the present day, no part of the narrative is dependant on emails, smart phones, internet or other such plot devices that would restrict the film to any specific period. That proves testament to the strength of the script because, like a modern revisionist’s Huckleberry Finn, there’s a mythical grandeur that pervades throughout, lending this simple but emotionally nuanced story a Deep South shimmer that’s nothing short of sublime. This is a quiet titan of new cinema and, surely, a future American classic.  


Mud (11)

Dir: Jeff Nichols; US, drama/thriller, 2012, 130 mins; Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon
Premiered  November 21
Playing Empire Bio, Grand Teatret, Dagmar, Park Bio


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