Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard
Director: Jeff Nichols
The Mississippi River is special to generations of readers – here, Mark Twain’s boys grew up; here, William Faulkner staged his hunts; here, Herman Melville’s Confidence-Man made his fellow-passengers question the notion of trust. This is the delta of boys who become men when they’re children. The women wear frocks, the men wear overalls, parents don’t have time for their children, and couples don’t have the option to go their separate ways. Almost everyone drinks. The title of the film appears to toy with the idea of homeland (a literal translation from most of our Indian languages to represent the figurative), as much as with the idea of a trap, something that pulls one back, something one can’t leave behind.
At the outset, the film is a wistful reflection of life and love in the South. Speaking of the theme, Nichols said at the Cannes Film Festival 2012, where it premiered, “I mean, we all get banged up and bruised up, and yet we somehow pick ourselves up and go for it again.” What don’t we risk for love? And how many ever times we swear off it, and how many ever times we are let down, don’t we give it a chance?
There are several kinds of love in this story – there’s the mundane, married love, manifested so often in comfortable arguments between couples, the almost masochistic grinding of old axes, that we see between the parents of Ellis (Tye Sheridan); there is the kinship of age that can only be forged among pre-teen boys, that we see between Ellis and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland); there is the self-destructive love that quails from realisation for fear of becoming less romantic, that we see between Mud and Juniper (Reese Witherspoon); and there is a special kind of mentor-protégé bond that can surpass even that of parent-child. The last is shown at two levels, first in the relationship between Mud and the boys; and second, in the ties between Mud and Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), where Mud becomes suddenly young and inexperienced and vulnerable.
Mud is almost fable-like in its focus on the boys – here they are, steering into islands where boats are perched on trees. Here they are, fetching food for a fugitive, and listening to his exotic stories of how he got a tattoo, how he was bitten by a serpent, and why he insists on wearing the stained shirt he does. Here they are, thinking about love as they chat with a man who is hiding from the law, who has a pistol tucked into his jeans. And from this incongruous mix emerges a conflict – how does one deal with the cruel pragmatism of a man whom one wants to put on a pedestal?
The characters have been moulded with care, and the actors – most of whom are native to the area – do justice to their roles. Matthew McConaughey, who has segued from romantic comedies to serious cinema, is wonderful. Both Sheridan (last seen in Tree of Life) and Lofland play their characters with such ease that it’s not hard to imagine they’re extensions of their lives. A delightful addition is the inspired casting of Sam Shepard.