Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon and promising young actors Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) and newcomer Jacob Lofland, seems to have taken its cue from last year’s much-lauded Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Like Behn Zeitlin’s debut, Nichols’ third feature is very much a film about place. Similarly set in the Mississippi Delta, with an initially engaging elemental focus on water and earth, there’s a recognisably southern gothic tick to Mud too, steeped as it is in an almost fairy tale world that seems to leap fully-formed from Mark Twain.
Except this film is anything but fully formed. In fact, it shares exactly the same faults as Beasts. While the cinematography is inarguably lush, with haunting vistas of light dappled on water and a longing wistfulness in every establishing shot, that’s about all it has to offer and, like Zeitlin’s over-hyped offering, quickly grows tired.
The majority of characters here are so thinly sketched it’s hard to care for their fate, and the slow drip plot, such as there is, offers no meat to the certainly pretty bones.
McConaughey, as the eponymous, snake-tattooed Mud, is a fugitive from both the law, and a bunch of cowboy gangsters led by the chilling King (Joe Don Baker). Hiding out in a boat stranded amongst the tree tops on a snake-ridden island, while waiting to rendezvous with his trailer trash girlfriend Juniper (a mostly absentee Reese) so they can make their break for freedom, Mud is discovered by the adventurous Ellis and his best fiend Neckbone (Sheridan and Lofland respectively).
The lack of proper names serves to highlight the fact that the majority of these characters are little more than ciphers. Michael Shannon, a Nichols regular and soon-to-be General Zod in the upcoming Man of Steel, is briefly fun as Neckbone’s flighty uncle, but most of the adult roles ring hollow.
The exception is the two young boys, who offer the only real story the audience can engage with. Both excel, with Sheridan in particular one to watch. They imbue this Huckleberry Finn-lite with a warm, coming-of-age ambience that would be improved by considerably less screen time for the scenery and the adults.
McConaughey’s role in particular seems to rest on him looking smoulderingly into the distance while speaking in monosyllables, and the role of snakes in this tale is signposted like a sledgehammer to the head.
Nichols certainly has an eye for locale, but he may want to engage someone else to write an actual script next time.
Stephen A Russell