Clear Waters: Jeff Nicholls’ Mud (2012) – Blu-ray review
No getting stuck in this mud. Nicholls’ classical, Twain-meets-Malick river adventure flows freely with feeling and an adventurous spirit
(Jeff Nicholls, 2012)
Long before the myth of the open road, America had the myth of the open river: a wide space for exploration and (self-) discovery that Mark Twain, amongst others, tapped for every narrative possibility and symbolic resonance. The magic of Mud is that – no matter how schematic its rite of passage tale gets – it has the same atmosphere as Twain, as if Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were only just starting out today, and as movie stars rather than literary characters.
For all the opacity of the title, Nicholls’ story is commendably clear and straightforward, as two boys, Ellis and Neck, find Matthew McConaughey’s titular outlaw holed up on an island. For sure, there are complications – bounty hunters are after Mud, he’s pining for childhood sweetheart Reese Witherspoon and Ellis has his own pre-teen crush to contend with – but the film’s groove is defined in its opening minutes as the boys sneak out of the house, push the boat into the water and head off into impressively filmed Widesceen waters.
It’s no surprise that Nicholls earmarked Badlands as one of his top 10 in last year’s Sight And Sound poll: this has a Malick influence as wide as the river, as Nicholls posits Mud’s hideaway as an untouched paradise, lorded over by snakes and spiders. While there is no war to disrupt this paradise a la The Thin Red Line, Ellis has his own battles, with his parents on the verge of divorce and his houseboat home in danger of being broken up. “I’m no townie,” he sobs, and indeed there is nothing in Nicholls’ filming of motels and car parks to compete with the way the sun shimmers on the surface of the water or a gentle wind rustles the leaves on the trees.
The freshness is compromised by how obvious the story is, as Ellis’ idealistic faith in Mud’s quest is tested by the heartbreak elsewhere in his life – and for such a gentle film, the genre-bound ending verges on the parodic. Yet Nicholls has spent so long out in the wilderness that his story cannot be fully tamed, not least because the cast embrace his tactile approach: here’s a director who knows to hang back with his camera to capture full-bodied performances.
Tye Sheridan (a Malick disciple, having played the younger/older brother in The Tree Of Life) and Jacob Lofland have suitably lived-in faces; the latter in particular plays this as if the shoot was just another outdoors adventure. Meanwhile, McConaughey continues to be in the regency of his career, slowing things down to his laidback pace and enjoying the chance to shade his ‘just keep livin’ persona with flecks of ambiguity… although, ultimately, unlike his reinvention in Killer Joe, he’s as big-hearted as Nicholls.