That’s no real surprise, though the amount of time he takes to get shirtless in Mud may be a source of disappointment for fans of his six-pack. Instead McConaughey focuses on flexing his acting muscles in an impressively emotive performance as the titular mystery man hiding out on an island in the Mississippi.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols crafts a charming love letter to Huckleberry Finn with his modern day fable of life on the river. Told through the eyes of 14 year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his comically blunt, buck-toothed best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), this boys’ own adventure begins when they lay claim to the ultimate tree house: a boat wedged in amongst the canopy after a flood. But when it turns out Mud has already taken up residence, the boys’ curiosity wins out over their wariness. Who is this tattooed, cigarette-chomping curio with a crucifix carved into the soles of his boots?
Hiding out from bounty hunters and separated from his love Juniper (a bruised and battered Reese Witherspoon) Mud’s relationship with Ellis echoes another beloved novel, Great Expectations, and the transactional to emotional bond that develops between Pip and the fugitive Magwitch. And like Pip, Ellis’ home life ain’t so grand; his parents (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) are breaking up, threatening his humble but idyllic life on the river, and breaking his quietly romantic spirit.
“You can’t trust love, Ellis,” his father warns, but that’s precisely what Ellis sets his heart on as he and Neckbone attempt to reunite Mud and Juniper.
After fraying our psyches with his nerve shattering sophomore effort Take Shelter, the warmth and guileless adventure Nichols creates on screen comes as a blessed relief. Which is not to say the film is without tension – though, if anything, it’s a little too blatantly foreshadowed – but Nichols wins you over with the richness of story and characters, to capture more than a mere tribute to Twain and Dickens: this has all the makings of a modern classic.
Shot on 35mm, the widescreen tableaux are gorgeously cinematic. The artfulness with which Nichols renders nature is enough to give you Tree of Life flashbacks, which are helped along by Sheridan’s presence in both films. And although McConaughey is receiving well-deserved accolades, Sheridan is the real discovery in Mud; his gentle earnestness and emotional nuance is as impressive as it is understated. Lofland too proves himself a pitch-perfect sidekick, and the pair effortlessly rival those benchmark performances in Stand By Me.
Nichols finds similar success with his supporting cast. Paulson and McKinnon present the conflicted angst of parents wanting to protect their son from an inevitable separation, while across the river, Sam Shepard brings his characteristic gravitas to the role of a reclusive neighbor. Witherspoon creates a convincing blue-collar Helen of Troy, and Nichols regular Michael Shannon brings an intriguing extra dimension to Neckbone’s life as his roustabout uncle.
It’s a crying shame most fourteen year olds wouldn’t bother with this film, for its portrayal of family and friendship is handled with such a deft touch that a few important truths have a chance to hit home. Instead, it’ll be with a sense of nostalgia that older audiences sink into Mud; an experience that will surely leave its mark.
Published on TheVine Australian release date: 13 June 2013 (limited)
Freelance writer, award winning film critic and shameless history nerd. The Plot Thickens has become an archive for my published scratchings - for publications including Limelight Magazine, The Guardian Australia, The Vine, SBS Film, The Big Issue, Mornings on 702 ABC Sydney as well as the Critics' Forum on Richard Glover's Drive. I also produce and host The Spoiler Guys podcast with Marc Fennell and Giles Hardie.
So, welcome to my brand of cinephilia: everything from Antonioni to Zoolander.