Mud (2012)

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shephard, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Joe Don Baker, Michael Shannon

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Matthew McConaughey in Mud

This time last year, if you'd told me I'd go and see a film purely because Matthew McConaughey was in it, I'd have laughed in your face and accused you of confusing me with my mother. But since he scorched the screen in William Friedkin's Killer Joe, this go-to guy for by-the-numbers rom-coms has become one of the most watchable actors currently working.

This time he plays the eponymous Mud, a fugitive hiding on an island in the Mississippi River, as it flows through the backwards backwoods of Arkansas. His crime? Killing his girlfriend's abusive partner. So not only is he fleeing the law, but he's also being hunted by the dead man's Mafiosi-style family, headed by a dour, jowly Joe Don Baker, who will stop at nothing to see his son's murderer brought to rough justice.

So far so the perfect setting for a rural gothic horror movie or manhunt thriller. But, while it doesn't lack excitement, Mud has a rather different agenda.

When Mud's refuge in is discovered by Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland),kids from the nearby houseboat community that ekes out a living from the river, fishing, hunting and pearl diving, he finds two unlikely allies in his quest to rescue the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and escape to freedom.

Reese Witherspoon as Juniper in Mud

Like Whistle Down the Wind or Stand By Me, Mud is a charmingly old fashioned coming of age tale set in a timeless world far removed from the modern world, and fast disappearing. Ellis and Neck roam freely along the river in their motor boat like 21st century Huck Finns, at liberty to have the kind of life-changing adventures most kids these days can only watch on TV. Seemingly no-one has told them not to talk to strangers – not even if they happen to be killers on the run. But their trusting natures are in fact vindicated, because Mud is not a ‘bad ass' at all, but a lonely, rather sad figure, who, like Jay Gatsby (go with me on this one) has dedicated his life to loving a woman who isn't quite up to being the sole focus of his unwavering, obsessional devotion.

Like LP Hartley's The Go Between but a hundred years later, Mud is a story about learning to negotiate the adult world; about adults refusing to act in the clear-cut, black and white manner required of them by children; about how love and relationships are messy, confusing, hard to navigate and often disappointing; and about how coming to accept all this is an integral part of growing up.

Tye Sheridan as Ellis, Jacob Lofland as Neck and Matthew McConaughey as Mud

All this is marvellously conveyed by teen actor Tye Sheridan as Ellis, whose innocent sense of certainty as to what makes 'good people' is shaken by the actions of those around him, but fortunately never destroyed. Likewise newcomer Jacob Lofland turns in a fine performance as Neck, who, raised by his laddy uncle, sees Mud almost as a father figure, while Ellis sees him as a friend and confidante.

And of course McConaughey is just great in the title role, his wily, Magwitch-style appropriation of the boys' help balanced by a touchingly naïve belief in superstition and a faithful simplicity that is in itself almost childlike. We're told by Mississippi old-timer Tom (Sam Shephard) that he grew up almost feral in the woods. From what we see, he hasn't entirely grown up at all.

A sweet, absorbing rite of passage movie, Mud, like the Mississippi itself, sets a leisurely pace but never flags, rolling inexorably on to an exciting conclusion that is well worth the wait, concealing hidden depths that are well worth exploring. Come on in, the water's lovely…

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