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Boys using violence to impress girls

  • 30 May 2013

Mud (MA). Director: Jeff Nichols. Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland. 130 minutes

Some lessons need to be learned more than once. A young boy punches an older peer in defence of the honour of a girl he admires. The girl is suitably impressed, enough so that she invites the boy on a date. Is violence, then, an approved medium for the defence of romantic ideals? It is a premise that the boy, Ellis (Sheridan) will test twice more, in differing circumstances and with less gratifying results.

Mud is a coming of age story, set and beautifully filmed in backwoods Arkansas river country. Ellis lives on the river with his parents, part of a semi permanent community of houseboats that is under threat from new regulations. Ellis' fundamentally romantic world view is reflected in the film's gorgeous cinematography, which soaks up the rough and elegant details of Ellis' world, from the ramshackle timber of the houseboat and tangles of trees and scrub to the chocolate-ripple of the river and the black squrim of cottonmouths in a creekbed.

Of late Ellis' romantic notions are coming under strain, due not only to the threat on his home but also from the tense marital woes of his parents, who are staring down the prospect of a separation. Ellis seeks solace in a typically boyish adventure — Mud has its boots planted firmly in the literary footsteps of Mark Twain — which in turn brings an alluring but potentially dangerous new influence into his life.

Ellis and his 'Huckleberry', Neckbone (Lofland), take a non-parentally-approved boat ride to an uninhibited island on the Mississippi, to witness and claim as their own the no-less-than-miraculous sight of a boat left high in the branches of a tree by recent flood waters. This utterly mythic childhood experience takes an equally mythic turn when they encounter Mud (McConaughey), a tattooed transient with an enigmatic air and a deadly past.

Neck is wary, but Ellis is won over by a tale that plays right to his romantic world view. Mud is on the run from the law, having killed a man in the defense of the woman he loves. They are now estranged by circumstance, but Mud has come to the area to be reunited with Juniper (Witherspoon), herself a mythic creature with nightingales tattooed