With its story of a scrappy teenage boy aiding a fugitive on the Mississippi River, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ beguiling coming-of-age adventure Mud can’t help but evoke that great American classic Huckleberry Finn.
The setting, though, is the present-day Arkansas Delta and the fugitive is Matthew McConaughey’s tale-spinning outlaw Mud, not a black slave. He’s found hiding out on a river island by 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) after they go looking for a boat left in a tree by a recent flood – a suitably strange and intriguing opening for the almost mythic tale that subsequently unfolds.
Mud is on the run, having killed the abusive husband of his one true love, Reese Witherspoon’s Juniper, with whom he plans to escape. The romance of Mud’s quest appeals to the emotionally bruised, idealistic Ellis, whose parents are going through a painful divorce and whose riverboat home is under threat from the authorities. But the reality of Mud’s situation, and of his bond with the flighty Juniper, is far messier than Ellis realises…
Nichols takes his time unravelling Mud and Ellis’s entwined fates (the film is 130 minutes long), but his characters are so rich that it’s well worth being in their company. McConaughey’s lean and grizzled Mud is particularly compelling. Part hero, part charlatan, he is a jumble of chivalry and superstition, honour and self-delusion. Opposite him, Sheridan, last seen as Brad Pitt’s son in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, conveys Ellis’s growing pains with impressive assurance.
There are striking performances, too, from Lofland as the more worldly Neckbone, Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson as Ellis’s weary parents, Sam Shepard as Mud’s ornery surrogate father, and Michael Shannon, protagonist of Nichols’s last film, Take Shelter, as Neckbone’s spiky uncle.
Nichols lets all these characters breathe but he also throws in gripping episodes involving deadly snakes and no less poisonous bounty hunters. What ties everything together is the film’s terrific sense of place. Nichols doesn’t go in for the magic realist whimsy of that other recent watery Deep South tale, Beasts of the Southern Wild, but he does imbue his Southern Gothic landscapes with similar wonder.
In cinemas from Friday 10th May.
To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.