Cannes 2012: Mud
Posted on Monday May 28, 2012, 12:26 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
Mud screened on Saturday and was the last American film of the festival. By chance it was also the most American film in the official selection, taking place in the southern midwest state of Arkansas, written and directed by local boy Jeff Nichols and starring Texan Matthew McConaughey in the title role. After the rustic noir of Shotgun Stories and the intense mental illness drama Take Shelter, Mud perhaps gives a better reflection of this smart, unassuming director's true personality. Malick is a touchstone here, in more ways than one, but Nichols prefers a less obvious, more story-based style of visual poetry to most of the reclusive legend's imitators (give or take a couple of insert shots of spiders).
The Malick connection comes not just via shared producer Sarah Green but also from the film's protagonist – Ellis, a 14-year-old boy living on a houseboat, is played by Tye Sheridan (above, left), one of the boys in last year's Palme D'Or winner Tree Of Life. This time Sheridan knew what he was supposed to do and say before the cameras rolled, and he really is a revelation, giving an exceptional and surprisingly emotional performance. The film starts with him and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discovering a boat high up in the trees in a remote island on the Mississippi. They are about to claim it as their own when they realise that someone is living there – the sunbrowned, ragtag Mud (McConaughey), a fugitive on the run from both the law and (in a nod to Shotgun Stories) some bounty hunters with a vested interest in capturing him more dead than alive. Tye immediately takes to this outlandish but weirdly charismatic character, Neckbone not so much, and the two boys become drawn into Mud's plan, which is to meet up with his on-off lover Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and escape to Mexico.
The beauty of Mud is that it is sincere without being sentimental; though it has been compared with Stand By Me, it doesn't share that film's self-mythologising self-awareness. Crucial to this is Sheridan, who, unlike most child actors, isn't just playing himself but giving a performance, one that demands sympathy but never asks for pity or dips into cute. And as for McConaughey, the last 18 months has seen a real seachange for him, starting with The Lincoln Lawyer, through Killer Joe and Bernie. We'll skip The Paperboy, on account of it (and him in it) being fucking awful, but the fact remains that McConaughey is finding his niche at last and that his best roles play to his strengths. Mud suits him perfectly, being both a lover and fighter in equal measure, a flamboyant player who subtly plays the boys while being played himself by the flakey, unreliable Juniper.
A litany of Mark Twain references clearly shows Nichols' inspiration, but, like his previous two films, Mud is not so much a coming of age story as a film about love. Certainly Ellis learns a lesson or two about that, notably in a great little subplot involving an older girl, but the broader picture shows relationships in crisis all around. Ellis's parents are breaking up, Neckbone lives with his uncle (Michael Shannon), and what Mud paints as the romance of the century is really just a crush on a barfly who will leave him for a better offer every time. That the film doesn't end on a downer is a tribute to Nichols' upbeat outlook. As Neil Young once said, only love can break your heart, and Nichols himself compares heartbreak to a hangover – we vow never to drink again, but that resolve doesn't seem to last too long. In a competition full of half-empty glasses it was nice to see one half full. It maybe seemed a little slight amid such heavyweight contenders (and it certainly could lose a few minutes), but I liked Mud a lot, a thoughtful and dignified slice of downhome Americana.