Art & Culture

Often, when I go to see a film, full of high expectations, I am disappointed. Not this time. The advance word that Mud was an excellent film proved to be spot on, for which I am most grateful. If you get a chance to see it, do so.

There are echoes of Huck Finn, Great Expectations, Stand By Me and most notably, The Go Between in the story, but these are all excellent antecedents, and add to the stature of the film rather than seeming to be derivative. Ellis and Neckbone are two 14 year old friends living on or by the river in Arkansas. They go out together in their boat one day, and find an island with a small boat wedged in the branches of a tree. It’s an amazing sight, and they think they are the only ones to have found it, until they discover footprints and some food, indicating a rival inhabitant.

On a return visit, they meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who is living in and around the boat. He has a gun in the back of his trousers, and explains that he is waiting to meet someone. This turns out to be the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). But things are complicated because he killed a man who had done her wrong, and now the police are after him. You can imagine that this is catnip to 2 teenage kids with notions of romance and adventure, and they are only too happy to help him with supplies and equipment, convinced that they are assisting in the path of true love.

One of the many things I liked about the film was the fact that it didn’t follow the path of predictability. I assumed that Ellis (or Neckbone) would have rough or brutal parents. Not so. Ellis’s parents are struggling to get along, but they both love him, and make it clear; while Neckbone is looked after by a benevolent uncle (Michael Shannon) with a penchant for The Beach Boys. Their friendship too is a thing of solid trust. It would have been easy to manufacture a rift between them to ramp up the drama, but writer/director Jeff Nicholls resists such easy temptations, and sticks to his own chosen path.

The film also benefits from an outstanding cast, with McConaughey showing that his recent return to form has been the real deal, while Reese Witherspoon allows us to forget she’s a big Hollywood star, and Sam Shephard, as Mud’s mentor, has real stature. But it’s the 2 boys who are the real find. Not for one moment do we doubt their authenticity. There are no false notes in their performances just as there are no false notes in the detail of their lives. We are never asked to feel sorry for them; if anything, they lead lives of wonderful independence and adventure.

The film – unusually – shows us the lives of the have nots, in a way that has not been successfully done since Winter’s Bone a few years ago. Mud is less harsh, less bleak, but equally  impressive. Nichols is only 35, but has already made three excellent films (Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter before this one). He seems to be a man of talent and vision and long may that continue.


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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