This week I pay homage to another indie gem that barely made the light of day. Yet again, Singapore Airlines delivers the goods; yet again, I had heard of this movie but failed to catch it on the big screen.
It’s a movie that satisfies emotionally on so many levels: coming-of-age, love, suspense, loyalty, friendship, and heartbreak. Set on the Mississippi amongst hardworking river folk, it pays more than lip service to Huck Finn– based by Twain on his childhood friend Tom Blankenship, here we even have a character of the same name, no less than Sam Shepherd in this case.
Two 14 year-old boys, good mates, escape from the disappointment of their everyday lives by riding the river, as you do. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is confused and anxious as his parents’ marriage seems to be falling apart and he may have to leave his beloved river; while Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) has no parents, but a stud for an Uncle, who loves him in a rough sort of way, but is no role model.
What they find on an outlying island, bizarrely, is a boat in a tree, which can be their secret; but, annoyingly, they have been beaten to it by a wild-looking hobo, who goes by the name of Mud (Mathew McConaughey as you have never seen him before). He tells them he is here to meet his long-lost love, Juniper – Reese Witherspoon in an outstanding performance as a drunken piece of white trash – if he can only find her.
Ellis, wounded and trying to find the meaning of love himself, is soon drawn into the web of intrigue and fantasy woven by Mud and persuades Neckbone that they have to help Mud rescue his fair maiden. No matter that he is a convict, and that he is wanted all over town.
There is so much ‘action’ at so many levels in this film: getting to grips with the relationship between Ellis and his sad Dad, who is a simple fisherman; with his mother, who is jaded by the lifestyle and wants something better for herself ‘in the city’; with his own fantasy that an 18 year-old girl could want to be his ‘girlfriend’; with the self-righteous grief and revenge felt by Mud’s victim’s family (enter the iconic Joe Don Baker as the bereaved father – I still treasure the memory of him as Darius Jedburgh in the superbThe Edge of Darkness); with what it means to be white trash, alcoholic and attracted to mean men who always hurt you. The most poignant of all strands, though, is Mud’s inability to face reality, to let go of his fantasy, his perfect world.
The story meanders along at a gentle pace, like the great Mississippi, giving ample time to get under the skin of all the main characters. The river itself assumes a starring role, but throws up endless questions as it rolls towards the sea. Is Mud like a modern day Messiah, lost in the wilderness, looking for redemption, or is he a bad man? Is Ellis’s mother wrong to want to leave a traditional way of life and break up the family? Is Juniper a hopeless case or simply a coward? Who is the mysterious Tom Blankenship? Whatislove? So many questions are raised and lovingly caressed by writer/director Jeff Nichols, but the answers are – cliché alert – clear as mud. It’s not called that for nothing!
What is clear, though, is that this is a mini masterpiece. The two boys are such naturals, endearing and with huge hearts; McConaughey is enigmatic, lean and hungry – devouring cans of beans at an astonishing rate, a Mississippi Robinson Crusoe. Many have tipped him for an Oscar nomination. Each and every actor contributes more than a piece of his or her soul in presenting us with the eternal questions facing mankind: who or what is the nature of good and evil, and how do you define love.I can find no fault with it; it satisfies all emotions I need to be fed when I go to see a film. Long live independent film-making.