Matthew McConaughey’s mystic Southern fugitive

May. 14, 2013
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After directing Take Shelter, an intriguing “Twilight Zone”-style tale of madness and apocalypse in America’s heartland, Jeff Nichols moves south to Arkansas for a strong follow-up, Mud. His protagonists are a pair of 14-year-olds, the sensitive Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and the more cynical, Fugazi T-shirt-wearing Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). They live along a river like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but stray into a scenario closer to Flannery O’Connor when they discover a mysterious fugitive on a nearby island, a rawboned man who answers to the name of Mud (Matthew McConaughey).

Living half in the key of mystic, Mud sees portents in every tree branch and fierce powers at war in this world—good and evil, bad luck and good. And he casts a deep shadow of danger. Mud admits to being homeless, even a hobo, but bristles at the charge of being a bum. “I’ll teach you something about respect your daddy never did,” he warns the boys against calling him that again.

Neckbone doesn’t have a daddy and is looked after by his uncle, who ekes a living from the river by diving for shellfish. Ellis’ parents are in a fraying marriage; his daddy runs a frozen fish business from coolers in the back of a pickup. “I work you hard because life is work,” he tells Ellis, summing up his grim ethic. Their town is low slung and made of clapboard and rust. But the land beyond is beautiful, a fitting habitation for Mud, who seems as much an elemental force of nature as a man. His reclusive stepfather even claims he discovered him as a boy wandering in the woods.

Mud tells Ellis and Neckbone that he’s awaiting the arrival of his life’s love, the girl with the nightingales tattooed on her hands, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). He doesn’t mention that the state troopers are waiting for him to surface, spreading his picture all over town; dark, powerful forces that won’t abide by the niceties of the law also pursue him.

Mud is as leisurely as a muggy summer day—with a thunderstorm building in the distance. The characters speak in the stark vernacular poetry of the South and the mood is contemporary Southern gothic. A cabin cruiser sits surreally in the branches of a great tree on the island where Mud is hiding, and the boys decide to help him lower the boat and escape down river to the elusive freedom of the open sea. The sense of place is authentic and the quandaries posed by love are real. Perhaps Ellis’ dad is correct: life is hard work, especially if you’re trying to get it right.


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