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28 May 2013

River Man

Jeff Nichols' new film Mud opens in darkest Arkansas, when 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) find a knocked-up sailboat stuck up a tree on a deserted island in the Mississippi River, which must have been lodged there after a flood. They find some measly food supplies and a stash of Penthouse and realise someone is living there, and, on heading back to their boat, they meet a superstitious drifter called Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who is perfectly friendly and charming, but despite his claims of having money, seems desperate for the boys to help him by getting him some more food. They are a little reticent, but Ellis in particular seems to trust him, and they head home, promising to return soon with food.

Both boys live in a poor town in rural Arkansas. Neckbone, who never knew his parents, lives with his oyster catcher uncle (Michael Shannon), who fancies himself as a bit of a stud. Ellis lives with his parents (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) on a houseboat; they both love him, but times are hard. "I work you hard because life is work," his father tells him. Their marriage is slowly breaking down, which may mean a change of living arrangements for Ellis, who baulks at the thought of becoming a townie. Meanwhile, he pursues a relationship with an older girl, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), who is flattered by the attention and charmed by his naïveté, although isn't very serious about him.

For all of these reasons, Ellis is vulnerable to Mud's charisma, even after he finds out Mud is on the run from the law after killing a man whom he says was trying to hurt Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the love of his life. The more Ellis finds out about Mud's life, the more he is drawn in and the more he identifies with the older man. It helps that a lot of Mud's anecdotes seem to take place when he was around the same age as Ellis—he met Juniper that summer, for instance, and it is hearing this that gives Ellis the courage to go after May Pearl. But despite his supposed openness with the boys, Mud is clearly a troubled man, who seems to struggle with the truth, and the uneasy nature of Nichols' slow-paced, two-hour movie makes you think it is quite possible that the burgeoning friendship between Mud and Ellis is going to go horribly, horribly wrong.

McConaughey is great as the troubled, troubling Mud, and Witherspoon put in a good performance as the trailer trash jezebel who, if you believe some of the characters, is responsible for Mud taking the path that he did in life. It's Sheridan who really shines in this melancholy coming-of-age drama, though, as the teenage boy who wants so desperately to seize control of the life that he feels is slipping from his grasp. After Tree of Life, he must have been grateful for some lines and some character development... Mud is a little too long, and the languorousness started to drag in the middle, although the action started to pick up again in the final act. It reminded me of Mean Creek in some ways, as well as Stand by Me. If you're in the mood for something flashy and entertaining in an obvious way, go and see Gatsby, but you want to see something subtler and more thoughtful and understated, Mud could be the film for you.

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