m u d
10th May 2013
Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland
2nd May 2013
Matthew McConaughey is having a renaissance isn't he? One minute he's making dubious romantic comedies (yes you, Fool's Gold) and getting arrested for playing the bongos naked, the next he is blowing us all away as sleazy stripper Dallas in Magic Mike and again as the eponymous Mud in writer/director Jeff Nichol's latest outing.
Mud is not about 'Mud' though – It's about Ellis and Neckbone. A beguiling slice of Americana, it is a vastly enjoyable coming of age story about masculinity, the South and, most of all, about love. Ellis (Ty Sheriden) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two fourteen year old boys in Arkansas, daydreamer Ellis lives on the river where his daddy works selling fish and smart-arse Neckbone lives in a trailer park. They don't have much but it doesn't matter, Arkansas is their playground. Neckbone didn't know his parents but that doesn't seem to bother him, he's having a whale of a time with his mussel fishing uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) who wears a old metal diving helmet and has some of the movie's best scenes (and lines). Someone remarks to Ellis and Neckbone at one point 'you boys get around I bet' and that they do, so much so that they discover Mud living in 'their' boat which has been flushed by flood-waters up a tree. “It's a hell of a thing ain't it” Mud drawls, “a boat in a tree'. Hell of a thing indeed. Ellis, being of the more poetic persuasion, falls hook line and sinker for Mud, a romantic hero, thanks to Mud's declaration that everything he did was out of love for his beloved Juniper (Reece Witherspoon). Neckbone is less enthralled (coughing 'bullshit' at some of Mud's tales) but still happy to go along for the ride. And what a ride they go on, learning more than they could ever learn in school with echoes of Huckleberry Finn and American folklore peppered along the way.
Nichols found inspiration in a book called The Last River, by Turner Browne, which documents the fast-disappearing way of life for those who live on the lower White River in Arkansas. Ellis' life with his dad, his blissful childhood of adventure is constantly under threat in Mud. We sense that the family are just making it, they are not in poverty but neither are they comfortable but it is a life Ellis loves. His mother Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) wants a change and, as the boat is in her name, if she goes the river authority will tear the houseboat apart. Any change as a child is terrifying and the idea of this is heartbreaking to Ellis, as is the idea that his parents won't be together. Elllis has oh so simple ideas about love that are crying out to be destroyed and they are - by both Mud and his first 'girlfriend' May Pearl - in the ritual of moving towards adulthood. Mr Blankenship (Sam Shepherd) whose boat is opposite is a mystery to Ellis until Mud throws them together. A man of very few words and even fewer emotions, closed off to the world and to love through past tragedies. To Ellis this is the worst way anyone could be. He says to him 'if you weren't such a dried up old man you would see' when defending Mud and Juniper's love.
More than once Stand by Me springs to mind, not only because of Neckbone's striking resemblance to a young River Phoenix (until he opens his mouth) but also the way Nichols has so managed to capture the simplicity and freedom of youth. We watch these two boys ragging about on Neckbone's bike or pushing through the murky water on Ellis' boat and we can almost smell the summer air and feel the anticipation and excitement. It feels like a period film. The film could quite easily be set ten or even twenty years ago, it feels almost timeless, it has such old fashioned values at heart and this is strangely refreshing. The characters and the situations the boys find themselves in are multi layered and complex but through the eyes of the boys, they just are. It's black or white.
Mud is a character. Nichols wrote it for McConaughey and I can't imagine anyone else playing it, he owns it. We don't know if Mud is telling the truth about anything but we don't care either. He is magnetic and exciting. Rooted in superstition, Mud has all manner of things to keep him safe, snake tattoos, crosses in his boots, wolf's eye on his lucky shirt. Nichols has said that Snakes are a 'thematic anchor', enhancing Mud's legend is the tale of how he got bitten by a snake and should have died; if he gets bitten again he will die. However it is Juniper that his bad luck charm and he just can't shake her. The lyrical way Mud speaks, that lilting Southern drawl, makes it all sound like a poetic dream. He is a living legend. No wonder Ellis dives in head first.
It's a wonderfully executed script and Nichols is more than affable in person so it's no surprise he assembled this wonderful cast. As well as McConaughey, Nichols wrote parts for Sam Shepherd and Michael Shannon. When Shepherd read the script he sent a not back to Nichols saying 'don't change a word'. Quite the compliment from a man whose films inspired Nichols. Ty Sheridan is simply perfect as wide eyed but self assured Elllis, expecting to see a lot more of him. Lofland does a great job with wisecracking Neckbone. Reece Witherspoon and Sarah Paulson are both far greater than the sum of their small parts here but they are a welcome addition. Joe Don Baker also makes a mark as big Daddy King. Shepherd is of course great as man of mystery Blankenship and is key to one of the best and funniest showdown scenes I've seen. Michael Shannon, as aforementioned has all the best lines, he wanted to play Mud but Galen is a gift of a part.
Nichols has said that he wanted to explore movement with this film and he does so beautifully. Working with his long-time cinematographer Adam Stone, Nichols takes full advantage of light and landscape. Expansive shots rushing along the river, racing with the boys on Neckbone's bike or beautiful sunsets behind Ellis travelling in the back of his dad's pick up.
The highlight of Sundance London, hugely original, with outstanding performances and a beautiful heart - It's one hell of a thing all right.