Mud is heartwarming, manly and gooey as molasses

Reviewed: Mud.

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.

Three men in a boat - Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey and Jacob Lofland in Mud.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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