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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era