There’s something about all those signifiers of a ‘coming of age’ story that can really raise my hackles when watching a film. The idealistic young kids coming up against the harshness of their parents’ world, the fumbling and humiliation of young love, the wistful voiceover recalling an earlier time of life. Well at least that last isn’t in Mud, and I will concede that the ‘coming of age movie’ clichés don’t totally overpower the story, but the richness and wonder of the opening isn’t really sustained throughout the whole film.
I wanted to get that positive in there early, because it’s not really fair to lead a review with the stuff that bothered me. If Mud can be praised for anything, it’s a really sure sense of place, probably because the director and many of the actors are familiar with this part of the world (the American South of Arkansas, specifically). And there is wonder in those trips up river that the young kids take, a wonder at the spectacular vista of nature in the opening shot that is undimmed in the adults as the film ends. Of course, the river as a metaphor for the onward progress of life with all its twists and tributaries is a very old and powerful one, but the specifics of this location are everything. There is the floating riverside home of the film’s central character Ellis (Tye Sheridan), the island inhabited by Matthew McConaughey’s modern castaway Mud, and the pearl fishing undertaken in a dramatic diving helmet (almost steampunk in its stylised antiquity) by Michael Shannon, playing the uncle of Ellis’ best friend Neckbone.
There’s also nothing shabby about the acting. McConaughey is introduced with cigarette clenched between his teeth, drawling a few enigmatic pseudo-profundities to the kids on the sandy beachfront of the island, but he moves well beyond a one-note caricature of the man with a shadowy past, and over the course of the film has rounded out enough as a character that the violent dénouement (I shall say no more about what happens or the reasons for it, for the usual spoilery reasons) comes as a bit of a surprise, puncturing the atmosphere the film has hitherto created. The young Tye Sheridan, as the actual heart of the film, carries off his role without too much recourse to wistful blankness at what’s happening around him. I liked Jacob Lofley too as Neckbone, in particular his constant compulsive recourse to gauche profanity as if it made him feel more like a knowing grown-up, not to mention his gruff direct questioning of the adults.
Reese Witherspoon too does what she can with Juniper, Mud’s love interest who appears to be waiting for him in a nearby town. The problem is that the female characters are very much at the mercy of the men in the story — certainly not subservient by any means, but, as characters, largely defined by the way the men talk about them. For this, above all else, is a film about (admittedly misguided) patriarchal attitudes as passed down from fathers to sons. All the adult male characters talk about women, share their bad experiences with love, and create an environment wherein Ellis’s central journey (that coming of age story) is to move past these preconceptions with the help of McConaughey’s societal misfit. And if that all seems a little bit too neatly orchestrated, then there’s also the way the script introduces characters (Sam Shepard’s grizzled old veteran Tom, in particular) with skillsets all too convenient for the way the film resolves itself.
Ultimately, the film tries too hard to draw out profundity from the murky depths of these characters and sets itself up for a slightly unsatisfying conclusion. Ellis’s character arc is so predicated on his emotional coming of age that the life-threatening situations he is put in barely seem to register. It’s instead the final shot, refocusing again on the spectacular Arkansas landscape, which provides the key to where the strengths of the film really lie.
Director/Writer Jeff Nichols; Cinematographer Adam Stone; Starring Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 14 May 2013.