If Mark Twain were alive today, studied film making at the University of North Carolina and had nurtured a ten-year fascination with the actor Matthew McConaughey, he might have made the film Mud. Like last year’s indie hit Beasts of the Southern Wild, we are again invited to experience a watery way of life teetering on the brink: but this time, rather than the fantastical, it is sentimentality that lends the landscape its fictive quality. This is Tom Sawyer and the bounty hunters.
Two just-about-teenagers, Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan from Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and newcomer Jacob Lofland) find a rusted boat suspended in the branches of a gnarled tree on a deserted islet in the Mississippi. They quickly lay claim to the vessel, only to discover a half-eaten loaf of bread, a small cache of beanie weenies and a trail of footprints with crosses in the heels leading across the beach. They are not alone. A deep musical surge rises, but the mystical moment soon passes and the film becomes a coming of age drama set against the plain natural beauty of the riverscape with a wanted, armed criminal at the centre: an outcast by the name of Mud.
Mud is waiting for Junipur (Reese Witherspoon), a woman with whom he has been infatuated for most of his life. He has killed her previous boyfriend – who, Mud claims, beat her and forced a miscarriage. Now he is on the run and hopes to escape using the tree boat out of the Mississippi into the open Mexican Gulf, with Juniper in tow. "I think the last flood did it," says Neckbone as he leads Ellis up the beach to the boat. Salvation, anyone?
In order to escape Mud needs help from Ellis and Neckbone, who have their own problems: Ellis’s parents are in the process of a divorce, his father’s way of life is threatened by a government which considers river-dwellers a burden, and his naïve ideas about familial relationships are being proved false. Neckbone, like Mud, is an orphan raised by another man – his uncle Galen (played by Boardwalk Empire's Michael Shannon), a pearl diver with a hands-off approach to parenting. Another father is "King", the pastor-like father of the dead man who has hired a team of weighty bounty hunters to track and kill Mud - and in one of the film's most unusual scenes, gathers the vigilantes in a circle to pray for Mud's death. Which reminded me of this.
The kids agree to aid Mud’s quest, but realise their assent was based on dubious premises. What results is a test of character for Mud and the dismantling (and perhaps preservation) of romantic ideas about nature, honour and love. The film is at times annoyingly male: a series of strangers, relatives and near-relatives searching for fathers and sons in one another. The women are almost incidental. The film conveys a great deal in its symbolism. It isn't always necessary to render every revelation as dialogue (too many "I love yous" risk producing a sentimentality as gooey as molasses). But the themes are manifold, the narrative quick and compelling, and McConaughey is radient. He is a desperate man on a disappearing frontier: a classically American figure who places all hope in the boat.