Mud: Jeff Nichols goes back to his roots

dominicpinkIn his third directorial outing, Jeff Nichols takes things back to the Arkansas of his childhood and his directorial début, Shotgun Stories.

 The nostalgia dial that they have in Hollywood production suites – the one that makes everything dappled and golden and just a little shaky – is set to eleven as the fourteen year-old Ellis and his pal Neckbone (complete with Fugazi tee and ‘sheeit’-spouting attitude) set out to an island near  their homes on the Mississippi delta to claim a boat left in a tree by a recent flood.

Unbeknownst to them it is inhabited by the mirage-like Mud, played by Matthew McConaughey and his torso, whose friendship leads the pair into a world of adult problems with little more than the guise of their childhood innocence to protect them.

The film is loosely based on Mark Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn, though not closely enough to inspire the same fandom-motivated throngs of obligatory viewing as this week’s release The Great Gatsby.

Reese Witherspoon plays love object Juniper fresh from an arrest for being intoxicated with power in public, but the effect of casting her alongside fellow schmaltz veteran turned actor McConaughey is counterbalanced somewhat by a recent Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes, making it hard to know how seriously we ought to take Mud.

But anyone expecting a southern wilderness epic of the Paris Texas ilk will be disappointed; Mud is a pistol-totin’, chain-smokin’ melodrama that pays homage to the Western genre.

McConaughey puts in a decent performance as the uncomplicatedly gritty Mud, and Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland do their best with Ellis and Neckbone, but the script is more ropey than Mud’s hammock (it’s made of ropes). For every one-liner that sticks there’s a glibly axiomatic comment on love or life or sex, all that stuff.

The whole thing exudes style over substance – where does Mud keep getting those cigarettes that he grits his teeth around in every scene?

That said, it is extremely stylish, if not effortlessly so. The setting and cinematography are gorgeous, and Nichols never misses an opportunity for a wide-angle shot of the Mississippi River landscape or the ramshackle houseboats that make up Ellis’ community. The sense of this community is one of the most endearing features of the film, with a number of successful minor roles contributing to an overall impression of banality from which the boys escape, though Ellis’ family problems are dealt with rather brusquely, as is his belief in the power of love that encourages him in his assistance of Mud.

There’s also a lovely tension between the boys’ compellingly naïve confidence and the agony of watching them stick their necks further and further out in helping Mud in escaping from his island hideout. The film is shot from the teenagers’ point of view, which partially excuses some of the clumsy thematic simplicity and scripting; the film hinges on the premise of adolescent self-importance for much of the drama, and just about sustains this impression through one or two moments that would otherwise be a little cheesy, Ellis’ first brushes with romance being foremost among them.

For fans of cowboy flicks or those looking for a visually stunning mood piece, Mud is an involving portrayal of youth and young manhood. Just don’t expect anything too venomous.

PHOTO/Fiona, Dominic Pink