Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols returns with a Southern tale that owes much to Mark Twain as two teenage boys help Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive.
The inseparable Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Loftland) are our modern-day Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. They ride motorbikes, pilot motorboats, and enjoy the laidback lifestyle of the Mississippi river. Orphaned Neck lives with his Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), a womaniser, oyster fisher, and collector of riverbed trash. Ellis endures the disintegrating marriage of his parents Senior (Ray McKinnon) and MaryLee (Sarah Paulson). Then, boating out to an island in the river to see a boat stranded in a tree by a flood, they encounter Mud (Matthew McConaughey); a superstitious fugitive waiting for his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to rendezvous with him, and hiding out from the law and Texan cowboys the while. Neck is wary of Mud but Ellis is drawn to his irrepressible romanticism and soon the boys find themselves conspiring with Mud, and inviting danger…
If you’ve read Huckleberry Finn you’ll grin at Mud’s entrance being announced by distinctive footprints because of nails forming a cross in his boot just like Pa Finn. You’ll also enjoy an absurd moment worthy of Twain’s warring clans the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons bringing their guns to church. That blood feud is echoed in the vendetta against Mud by implacable Texans led by the smooth Carver (Paul Sparks) and his gruff father King (Joe Don Baker). Nichols manages to make such touches not seem anachronistic by giving a timeless quality to proceedings. People ring landlines and ask for the person they want to talk to, Galen uses a 19th century diving helmet with a 21st century skin-suit, and the Beach Boys’ ‘Help Me Rhonda’ gets its most prominent use since 1980s show ALF. Nichols pulls this off largely by his insistence on shooting on remote, strikingly beautiful locations in Arkansas, which his regular cinematographer Adam Stone imbues with heavenly sheen.
Nichols’ Take Shelter was one of the finest films of 2011, and Mud shows startling range in being expansive and optimistic where that was intense and foreboding. Tree of Life star Sheridan gives a subtle turn as Ellis, who reacts to his parents’ separation and the loss of his riverside life by bonding with Mud because of his unquenchable belief in everlasting love. Ellis projects Mud’s love for Juniper onto his own putative girlfriend MayPearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) despite the warnings by his mysterious neighbour Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) that Mud is a fool for love, and that Ellis and Neck are making themselves as great fools by running messages for Mud and scrounging materials for his tree-stranded boat. Nichols draws uniformly flawless performances from his perfectly judged ensemble to make this a deeply felt tale of love and wisdom, played against the rolling Mississippi and endless local charms against bad luck, which builds to a climax suitable for a director whose debut was called Shotgun Stories. The ending makes you think of Huck’s closing peroration, but the final image then makes you think Frederick Jackson Turner got it wrong – the frontier spirit is well-nigh indestructible.
Nichols’ third film is his most ambitious and warmest. Rich and absorbing, it is lit by a deep affection for his characters. The best film I’ve seen this year.