Mud: take me to the river

MudComing-of-age drama Mud, set among the houseboats and islands of Mississippi, feels in some ways like a canny updating of Huckleberry Finn. A pair of fourteen year olds discover an amiable, but obviously fugitive, man living rough in an abandoned boat and decide to help him, initially by bringing him provisions and later by assisting him with his plans to flee the area, but find the stakes of the situation raised when the complicated nature of his personal affairs and the ruthlessness of his pursuers become apparent. A set-up like this is far from original but Jeff Nichols’s film is immediately likeable and involving, mainly because of the care that’s been taken to convey events through the viewpoint of the serious and steadfast boy Ellis, who has problems at home and with girls to cope with as well as the practical difficulties he faces in honouring the promises he’s made to the mysterious outlaw. It helps also that all the characters we meet are well-written and fully rounded, and that while there are enough reversals, revelations and scenes of conflict to sustain the drama over the running time all of them flow naturally from the scenario that’s been established and even the tense climactic stand-off at the end doesn’t seem overly contrived. Matthew McConaughey gets the showy role as the wild-haired unwashed Mud and he’s very good, exhibiting both a convincing empathy with the boys who have befriended him and a real edge of desperation when things get dicey but the movie really belongs to Tye Sheridan – he’s onscreen most of the time, and is able to sell Ellis’s agonising over the various dilemmas he’s presented with some highly accomplished underplaying and a minimum of histrionics. You really feel for him. There are also good parts for Reese Witherspoon as Mud’s longsuffering sweetheart and the veteran Sam Shepard as the solitary mentor figure Tom Blankenship (I didn’t recognise him till the end credits came up, thought it was odd that the character had old photos of a celebrated New York playwright on display in his living room). This is a film with a lot of heart and mercifully little empty sentimentality, made with intelligence and restraint.

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