Following up the epically, mind-constricting, apocalyptic madness that was 2011’s Take Shelter must have seemed like a daunting task, a film that’s impact is not necessarily immediately apparent but lingers and torments in its viewer’s brain long afterwards, revealing itself as a terrifying masterpiece. I can’t remember being completely enamored with it at the time but perhaps that was more out of distress from a film which creates such an oppressive atmosphere. Thinking back to those clouds still feels frightening. Director Ben Nichols is an immensely talented man whose work deserves reflection.
Mud probably won’t linger in quite the same way but some of its images and feelings do burn deep. Simply, it’s a coming of age tale. Two friends in their early teens, Elis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland, who shares an uncanny resemblance to River Phoenix in Stand by Me) wander off in a small motorboat down the Mississippi River, stumbling upon an island, where they encounter Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive attempting to reconnect with his love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud is hiding on the island away from the authorities, using the boys to help him reunite with his love and just like the aforementioned Stand By Me, the boys find themselves suddenly burdened with very mature emotions and responsibilities. Elis and Neckbone initially discover evidence of Mud’s existence in a boat which somehow found itself lodged up in the branches of a tree, which is the sort of offbeat detail which makes this adventure so intriguing and charming as a major subplot involves getting the boat back down to shore.
Nichols said he wrote the role with McConaughey in mind, whose career renaissance continues to dazzle, although the real star is teenager Tye Sheridan whose only previous acting experience was in Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life. Sheridan performance shows a remarkable maturity, delicate and poignant but still very much just a teenage kid. I’m a sucker for southern drawls and the film is naturally full of them, projected against the almost mythic world of river life and an abandoned island, a dreamlike setting is created alongside some very earthly characters.
The mystical sense of childhood discovery builds slowly, taking its time against the stunning backdrop. It’s a film which allows its camera to turn its setting into something visceral, relating to Mud’s feeling of desperate lonely love in the same way Elis understands his role in helping Mud reconnect with where he should be, earnestly trying to make something beautiful but detached whole again. It’s a slow burning 130 minutes that optimises its use of its setting, yet again showcasing Ben Nichols’s remarkable ability to build senses of atmosphere and man’s connection to nature.
Review by David Rank
Mud is out on 10th May in the UK. Running time 130 mins. Certificate 12A (UK).
Comments and feedback are always welcome or just give the film a rating by using the stars at the top.