drama, jacob lofland, jeff nichols, joe don baker, mark twain, matthew mcconaughey, michael shannon, mississippi river, mud, ray mckinnon, reese witherspoon, sam shepard, sarah paulson, toni morrison, tye sheridan
“Mississippi Moon, Won’t You Keep On Shinin’ On Me”
MARK TWAIN NEVER forgot the Mississippi. In 1856, he left Ohio for Louisiana by steamboat, intending to travel on the Amazon. Fortunately, Twain changed his mind and apprenticed for a Mississippi riverboat pilot and the rest is (American literary) history. “The great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun,” he wrote in one of his earliest sketches about that river. Twain would no doubt have found the new film “Mud” from Jeff Nichols – who reportedly asked his cast to read the author while on set – a marvel, rich as it is with local color, narrative density, and feeling. It’s full steam ahead for Nichols, whose previous films include the little masterpieces, “Shotgun Stories” (2007) and “Take Shelter” (2011).
A coming-of-age tale, “Mud” centers around two boys named Ellis (Tye Sheridan of “Tree of Life”) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). American kids don’t really explore the woods and streams anymore – there are apps for that now – which is why the boys’ backwoods existence evokes a golden age when childhood was the closest thing to freedom. Ellis and Neckbone discover a remote island with a boat inexplicably wedged in the treetops up high. There’s a well-executed panning shot – compliments of director of photography Adam Stone – in which the boys first encounter the island’s sole inhabitant, a stranger with an even stranger name: Mud (Matthew McConaughey, in his best starring role to date). Mud’s too amicable and avuncular to be dangerous – Ellis takes an immediate liking to him – and for a while, the boys shuttle between their families (played by Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson as Ellis’s feuding parents) and ornery neighbor Tom Blakenship (a buzz-cut Sam Shepard), bringing Mud the canned food he needs to survive on the lam. Michael Shannon, the star of Nichols’ previous films, is Neckbone’s guardian, Uncle Galen; he’s busy scouring the river bottom for oysters and banging around in the equipment of a deep-sea diver.
But no man, of course, is an island, and Mud’s criminal past connects the boys to a whole host of problems in their tiny Arkansas town. Mud’s back story is a romantic one: he’s killed the Texas lover of his on-again-off-again girlfriend named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who has brought him nothing but trouble. Driven by what Toni Morrison calls one of those “deepdown, spooky loves” that make one “so sad and happy,” Mud and Juniper are the kind of couple that send restraining-orders as love-notes. Tom Blakenship blames all of Mud’s trouble on Juniper and, as a ex-military sharpshooter, he comes in handy when the father of Mud’s victim (Joe Don Baker) brings a bunch of hired guns to town to track Mud down. It’s all in the nonverbal dialogue when Juniper spots Mud (temporarily off the island) from the balcony of her run-down motel; it’s Nichols’ riff on “Romeo and Juliet” with the same collision of eros and violence.
Gender politics, as usual, muddy the waters and the script’s only failure is that its conflicted relation to women and femininity feels, well, Twain-era. It becomes clear that Ellis and Mud are leading parallel lives, for the Huck-like Ellis is crushing on an older girl named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) who breaks his heart in the way Juniper breaks Mud’s over and over again. Because Ellis’s father is estranged from his mother (the underrated Paulson), he warns his son that all women are snakes, selfish and impossible to please. “Mud” doesn’t really disavow Ellis (or the audience) of that biblical bunk except for Mud’s corrective, which comes later in the moments before a river-boat shoot-out. Mud assures the boy that women are worth loving, but is “Mud” really on board? The film’s women remain archetypal and far-off.
Mud’s island, meanwhile, is a wondrous place; it’s the ultimate man-cave wherein he’s planning his escape by river but also a dangerous place replete with a hissing snake pit (foreshadowed well from the film’s start). Nichols’ “Mud” is that rare work of art that achieves something tantamount to Twain’s best stories (for adults and children): it reminds you, simultaneously, of what it was like to be a child but also what it’s like to feel – however incompletely – all grown-up.