Boys using violence to impress girls

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 on her hands, who the boys soon confirm is in the area. Dangerous parties are closing in on the two hapless lovers, and Mud needs the boys' help to ensure the rendezvous occurs safely.

I've never been a fan of McConaughey as an actor. Here, admittedly, his stagy charisma serves the character well, underpinning the fact that Mud is more myth than man. McConaughey  plays up to the gaze of his young co-stars, with their combination of awe and dread and bemusement and basic boyish curiosity. For their own part the boys match him for astuteness and brazenness; see the sly, baffled glances that they exchange at some of Mud's more theatrical or oblique pronouncements. They are drawn to him, but not uneqivocally.

Ellis is not only intrigued by Mud's almost ethereal eccentricity (he wears a 'lucky' shirt and has crosses nailed to the heels of his boots), he is captivated by the essential romance of Mud's story. The ferocious love that attracts Mud to Juniper stands in Ellis' mind as a kind of ideal; the perfect contrast to the disintegration of his parents' marriage. In a way Mud is a vision of Ellis' own future; his back story contains parallells to Ellis' own fraught forays into young love, as portrayed in the film. But should Ellis take Mud's experience as inspiration or warning?

Ellis' coming of age, his journey from innocence to experience, takes place in the aching overlap between romanticism and fantasy. Like the rivers of Arkansas themselves, life's waters contain deadly snakes, and sooner or later they will bite (ophiophobic movie-goers beware). Boys can't go around punching other boys in order to impress girls; sometime marriages fail, though no one is at fault; the law is not always just; and consequences catch up even with those who are motivated by love. These are hard lessons for a romantic to learn.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Mud, Reese Witherspoon, Matthew McConaughey, Mud



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