America’s rural backyard has a tradition of coming of age tales. In 1986, director Rob Reiner made the film Stand by Me, a story of four boys (amongst them a young River Phoenix with a buzz cut), setting out one summer into Oregon County’s forests and rivers, in search of the mythical body of boy left by a railway track. It has become a touchstone for many 80s boys… and perhaps girls, too – a cinematic rite of passage.
On the subject of youth, do you remember the first time your heart was broken and that pure ideal of love seemed shattered? Set in the southern US, writer and director, Jeff Nichols presses Mud from a Stand by Me-shaped mould; a coming of age tale set against the backdrop of the brown Mississippi river that is the backbone for a small rural community.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) lives with his parents on a floating house permanently moored to the riverbank and surrounded by forest. His father is a fisherman, landing his freshwater catch, processing then delivering it to customers in the nearby town. Ellis’ mother and father are obviously going through marital strain; they argue in the night as Ellis sneaks out his bedroom window and runs to meet his best friend, Neckbone.
Remember that River Phoenix buzz cut? Well just take a look at young Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) and tell me he isn’t the spitting image? Lofland plays him as calm and cocksure, supporting Sheridan’s lead in every sense of the word. Neckbone lives in a trailer with his uncle James; a laissez-faire man who just likes to play guitar, chase women and work at picking oysters off the wide riverbed. There is a knowing moment when James’ girlfriend storms out after an unusual sexual request (his “doing it” music, as Neckbone calls it, the Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” is a “keep out” sign to his nephew). The gift he tries to placate her with – a necklace made of real pearls – is rejected so it is given to Ellis, who will gift it in his first romantic encounter with an older girl. The sexual allusion is cheeky, but symbolic of the adult world with which they are to collide.
The two boys steal away at night in a small motorboat, out to an island in the wide river, where a boat sits high in a tree after a flood. They only have fifteen minutes before the tide turns, so their first excursion is brief to claim ownership of their boathouse. The problem is, someone’s been living there.
His name is Mud, and his character is as clear as. Matthew McConaughey plays the sun-ripened, dirt-ingrained refugee living on the island. Superstitious and surrounding himself with talismans of protection against the “evils of this world”, he first appears like a ghost, leaving boot prints with crucifix imprints that stop suddenly in the sand. And then he is there. A gun pushed into the waistband of his jeans. It’s that delicious moment of fear you have as a child when you encounter a stranger in your territory. The adrenaline pumps, and this uncertainty could have been held for longer, though Nichols wants to get digging into the story, which is fair enough.
Mud has marooned himself to escape those from his past who wish him a sticky end, all except his beloved Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), for whom he waits with fevered anticipation. But a fever can also be a delusional illness, and love is in the dock to be judged, as young Ellis sees Mud’s mission to be reunited with Juniper as a winnable game compared to his parent’s fractured relationship. Reality will bite unexpectedly, like a snake in the safety of your bed, and Nichols questions the foundations of love, who might be the real snakes in life, and, with more than a little sting, the loyalty of some female partners. He asks us to consider, what does it take to be a man and where does the blame lie, for people are not always what they appear to be. This is the path along which Ellis fights his way, in that tumultuous period between boy- and manhood.
We’ve all been there; disappointed by the illusion of the relationship that was drawn flawless in our mind’s eye, and Ellis is no exception. Mud is a gripping tale of the lack of clarity in first and subsequent loves, its bitterness and confusion, but also the redemption of unhindered optimism. It seems you must seek the antidote before the poison sets in and protect yourself from being bitten again.
Both Sheridan and Lofland give outstanding, naturalistic performances, but it is the former’s film, with McConaughey as his adult reflection. The anguish Sheridan brings to Ellis is heartfelt and palpable. McConaughey continues his reinvigorated screen presence as a dramatic and complex leading man, enjoying his “McConaughssance” as he coins it. May it continue.