As nicknames go, Mud isn’t a great one, but it fits Matthew McConaughey’s slightly soiled fugitive perfectly. He’s hiding out on an island on the Mississippi river, shacked up in an old boat that two 14-year-old boys had planned to make their own (which happens to be up a tree). To the boys, Mud is a character straight from a book – full of exaggerated stories, spouting myth and legend, who comes with a large element of danger plus a star-crossed lover. The boys are too swept away by his stories to see the slightly disappointing truth – that Mud is a man chased by a dark history and full of tall tales. His connection to another mysterious river-dweller (an also suitably grizzled looking Sam Shepard) only adds to his allure.
The two boys both have disrupted home lives. Ellis (Ida Sheridan) is caught between parents who are splitting up and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) lives with his slightly bonkers uncle (Michael Shannon, playing an uncharacteristically genial role). Both are struggling to understand what love is, and when Mud reveals his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) is on her way to meet up with him, Ellis in particular is so entranced with the romance of it all that he gets more involved with Mud’s shenanigans than he should.
Jeff Nichols’ third feature, following the excellent Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, Mud is made with obvious affection for the area and its people, and has great performances all round, particularly from McConaughey and Sheridan who are superb. With echoes of Stand By Me and Huck Finn, it’s a film that most of all shines with love.
I missed seeing this at the festival and really regretted it, Michael Shannon is fast becoming one of my favourite actors, not least for his darkly sexy performance as government agent van Alden in Boardwalk Empire (he’s joined here by another Boardwalk stalwart, Shea Whigham). In Take Shelter he plays Curtis, a man suffering from hallucinations and terrible dreams about impending doom – the sort of dreams where you wake up silently screaming and drenched in sweat. Having a mother with paranoid schizophrenia leads him to think his worst fears of heading the same way are being realised and despite seeking out help, he slowly but surely loses control and his idyllic family life descends into chaos.
Curtis struggles between understanding the visions are all in his head and his desperate need to prepare for the worst even at the expense of his job and often, heartbreakingly, the people he loves. Shannon is nothing less than brilliant and surely a cert for an Oscar nomination – this is a fairly long film at two hours, but it never feels too drawn out: he’s magnetic – you can’t take your eyes off him.
Jeff Nichols has directed a powerful and breathtakingly beautiful film that serves as a grim reflection of our times as well as a sensitive portrayal of the impact of mental illness. It’s got a great ending too, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Highly recommended.