Mud: as sickly sweet as BBQ chicken

Jeff Nichols’ highly lauded tale of adolescence in the Deep South is simple and effective, if saccharine fare.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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Jeff Nichols’ first two films – Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter – announced the arrival one of the freshest and yet unassuming American directors for a generation. These slow-burn minor masterpieces were draped in a brooding atmosphere and bore a sumptuous visual eye reminiscent of a young Terrence Malick.

His latest, Mud, opens on two Arkansas teens, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), sailing out onto the mighty Mississippi in search of a small island where they’ve eyed a boat lodged miraculously up a tree. These opening scenes glow with his characteristically austere yet painterly aesthetic, but as soon as they arrive the film shores up in far cosier, sentimental climes than we’ve seen Nichols working in before.

Appearing, as if out of the ether, is our eponymous hero (Matthew McConaughey) – a loquacious drifter who’s been hiding out in their coveted vessel after a run in with the law and, more specifically, the abusive boyfriend of his childhood sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). In true Boy’s Own-tale fashion, the three strike up an unlikely friendship: Mud and the island give the boys a space where they can flout the rules of home, talk to a stranger and swear like longshoremen without the fear of a slap in the chops. They smuggle him food and pass messages to Juniper as Mud tries to get the boat seaworthy so the two lovers can hazard an escape.

This is a deeply romanticised vision of the South. It’s one of rustic, character-forging hard graft – ‘I work you hard because life is work’, quoth Ellis’ father, who sells fish door-to-door out of a cooler – but it’s also deeply mystical, lyrical and wild. Mud at the centre of it all is a parentless child born out of the landscape, the river and the dirt, speaking almost entirely in folksy one-liners: Juniper’s not merely pretty, ‘she’s a dream you don’t ever want to wake up from’.

McConaughey is clearly in his element and his silky southern charm flies right off the screen, inspiring in the audience the same man-love Ellis is so clearly struck by. Meanwhile, Nichols’ customary sour-faced leading man, the exquisite Michael Shannon, is bumped down the pecking order to a light-comic role as Neckbone’s lothario uncle, underlining the clear departure from the director’s characteristic restraint and naturalism.

Mud wears its influences very much on its sleeve. There’s a shade of Huckleberry Finn as the boys learn, through a friendship with a superstitious man-child, that doing the right thing often means doing the opposite of what grownups or the law tell you. And, beyond the obvious phonetic similarity, it’s also heavily indebted to Martin Ritt’s 1963 nouveau-western Hud, seen in the intergenerational sparring between Ellis and his father.

But, in truth, Mud is too light, too fluffy and of far less consequence than the tales it apes. This is neither a biting treatise on the amorality of lawful slavery nor a mournful study of the old ways of life being left in the dust by the march of modernity. This, in essence, is about the trials of adolescence, learning what love is and that it doesn’t always work out.

As Nichols gestures to these weathered southern-fried classics, Mud fails to measure up – feeling by comparison like a story envisaged by an effusive country singer. But while it is not nearly as biting or nuanced as his previous two films, it works well enough on its own syrupy terms; sliding pleasantly along with all the bitter-sweet charm of a lap-steel lick.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Mud here:

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