views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Mud (12A) - Director Q&A
The Covent Garden Hotel
29th April 2013


There might be a river, some murky goings on and a slightly rough around the edges Matthew McConaughey on the scene, but this is nothing like his last film, The Paperboy. For once, despite some brave performances from McConaughey and Nicole Kidman, the oddly-paced screenplay left us unsettled and slightly bewildered at the end. With Mud, despite the heartache, we exit feeling uplifted. Not only do the actors here work hard, but the script is wonderfully written by Jeff Nichols, who also directed. This is a beautifully crafted film.

There are certainly a lot of different elements to it, but at its core, Mud is very much a coming-of-age story centred on 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan). Yes, most young'uns don't have convicts tricking them in fetching food, then undertaking to keep a vaguely paternal eye over them forevermore - Charles Dickens' Pip aside - or dodge bullets as they get in the way of big bad bounty hunters. But children have a seemingly unlimited capacity to take what life throws at them, and Ellis embodies this idea. He loves, he believes in lasting relationships, and as long as his can reconcile what's happening to those ideals of his, nothing fazes him.

Ellis has both an old head on his shoulders, and is impossibly naive. These two conflicting aspects to his character round it out, and make him someone you invest in. The audience cares about his highs and lows, our hearts breaking as his does.

The two love stories running in parallel - Mud and Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), Ellis and May-Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) - against the backdrop of Ellis' parents (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) falling apart - highlight that no matter the ages, or situations, all relationships have the same problems. Nichols contrasts the relationships of Mud and Ellis, showing that they share the same desires, values and ultimately, vulnerability. Their friendship is a strange one, based solely on Ellis' belief that Mud's actions are entirely out of love for his sweetheart and therefore justifiable, and Mud's gratefulness at being accepted so readily by the boy.

Many of the shots are angled from low down, looking up, which subtly reinforces the message that this story belongs to Ellis. He and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are frequently in the same frame, best friends inextricably linked, relying on each other for moral guidance, rather than deferring to grown ups. Mud and Juniper however are never in the same shot, a deliberate decision that underlines the doomed nature of their turbulent relationship.

Witherspoon, like McConaughey, brings a lot of vulnerability to her character. We never find out the origins for her troubled behaviour, but we understand she's truly broken. For a big name, she doesn't get a huge amount of time on camera, but the same can also be said for other American favourites Sam Shepard, who plays "assassin" Tom Blankenship, and Michael Shannon, who plays Galen, Neckbone's uncle and sole guardian. None of them take a major role, but do a fantastic job of supporting the lead cast.

Indeed, there's a lot of damn fine acting in this film, both from the adults and the kids. According to Nichols, Sheridan didn't need much direction, instead he brought the emotion himself, making his performance all the more impressive in our eyes. Child actors can often drag the overall quality down, with their inexperience of life making it difficult for them to truly connect with their characters. Apparently from "a good home", Sheridan lacks the life experience to empathise with Ellis, but he delivers a wonderfully powerful performance anyway.

The soundtrack is often playful and relaxed, contrasting deliciously with the danger that Ellis and Neckbone put themselves in. The music also frames the languid contemplative shots of the Mississippi, which some may find a touch too length for their liking - the film is 130 minutes excluding adverts - but this is no Hobbit or Cloud Atlas test of endurance. The river, for us, is integral to the main plot and subplots, so spending time gazing at it is wholly justified.

It apparently took Nichols around a decade to finish putting pen to paper, but we're glad he got there in the end. The end result is leisurely, well-considered and certainly worth your time.

Mud was released in the UK on 10th May 2013.

Nearest tube station: Covent Garden (Piccadilly)

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