Mud (Jeff Nichols – USA) 130 minutes
The first thing that is puzzling about Mud is why it took twelve months to get a release after it screened at Cannes, particularly when Jeff Nichols’ previous film, Take Shelter was such a popular and critical success. Mud is in many respects more commercial than that film, with an arguably bigger-name cast (Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, as well as Nichols regular Michael Shannon); it is also a more conventional film, if one that is certainly a cut above most current Hollywood output.
The film starts off with two young friends Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who secretly head out to a small island on the Mississippi in search of a boat they have heard is stuck in a tree. They soon discover there is someone living in it – a drifter who goes by the name of Mud (McConaughey); on the run from the law, he makes a deal with the youngsters, promising them the boat if they come back with food. The more practical Neckbone is initially wary of this Magwitch character but Ellis is more drawn to him, being an idealist who recognises something of himself in the older man. It soon becomes clear however that Mud is wanted for murder and as well as hiding from the law, he has to elude bounty hunters hired by his victim’s family. The two boys, both of them from impoverished fishing families, become embroiled in a drama that gets only messier as Mud tries to persuade his old flame Juniper (Witherspoon) to run away with him.
As in his two previous films, Nichols delivers a full and truthful portrait of life in small town America, in this case DeWitt, Arkansas. The youngsters, like their elders, have a resourcefulness born of poverty – they are adept bricoleurs, able to turn their hand to almost any type of manual exigency; they are already conscious of the fact that they cannot expect to rely on anything in life, what with their family’s livelihoods under threat from an increasingly officious river authority. The film presents a dense matrix of father figures, both absent and present and their confused offspring – Ellis has a strained relationship with his own father, Senior (Ray McKinnon), while Neckbone is an orphan, raised by his uncle Galen (Shannon) much as Mud was himself raised by Tom Blankenship (Shepard). It’s a laudable trope but one that is a bit overdone, not to mention over-populated; we get the point early on and the film lurches into cliche from time to time. Nichols’ men are fabulists, self-deluded and fatuous, who are far less rooted than their various long-suffering women, whom they nonetheless harbour bitterness towards.
The final act is another puzzling aspect of the film – it seems grafted on from another movie entirely. The denouement is both cluttered and contrived and it doesn’t help that the gang of killers on Mud’s trail are little more than cardboard cut-outs. I also felt that, having set up as ineffably a romantic rogue as Mud, who is like a Christy Mahon of the Mississippi, Nichols squandered an opportunity to give us a far more resonant, ambiguous ending, as he did in Take Shelter. It is no disgrace that Mud is a comedown after that film, which was, after all, probably the best American film of the past few years, but it could have still been better. A little more ambition and a touch more audacity might have raised it above the level of merely efficient.