Monday, June 09, 2014
Jeff Nichols's exhilarating third movie, Mud, concerns two 14-year-old boys growing up in a small town beside the Mississippi in the director's native south central state of Arkansas, and it's impossible while watching it not to think about Huckleberry Finn and Hemingway's claim for its essential position in the experience of growing up close to the American landscape. It also brings to mind Hemingway's own detailed, tactile descriptions of fishing, sailing, hunting and living close to nature in the wild. There's another great novel about growing up, understanding and misunderstanding the world that Mud inevitably evokes. That's Great Expectations and Pip's relationship with fugitive convict Magwitch.
Nichols's Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) who set off on an adventure down river to find an old boat, surrealistically stranded high in a tree on a deserted island. They come across a handsome, charismatic man called Mud (Matthew McConaughey), and he too lays claim to the boat. When it transpires he's on the run for what he claims to be a justified homicide down in Texas, the boys enter into a pact to provide him with food and help him restore the craft as a means of escape. Ellis acts out of an innate sense of decency, sympathy and a need for friendship. Neckbone's motives are initially cynical and mercenary, though he gradually warms to the outsider.
In a deft piece of storytelling Nichols first links the tasks the boys undertake to their troubled family lives. Then he brings in Tom (Sam Shepard), the taciturn loner and former marine living on a houseboat across the river who has a key relationship to Mud. And finally their fates are dramatically involved with the strangers in town attracted by Mud: his mysterious girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and the posse of bounty hunters led by the patriarchal King (Joe Don Baker).
Through Ellis's wondering, romantic eyes we see the mighty river, which represents adventure, unknown dangers and the promise of a journey to a world elsewhere. He longs for love, friendship and security, but his parents' marriage is breaking up and their houseboat, from which his father conducts his business as hunter and fisherman, is threatened with confiscation. He envies the orphaned Neckbone's lovably wild uncle (Michael Shannon) who dives for clams wearing a homemade outfit that looks like Ned Kelly's improvised armour.