What the Dickens! GREAT EXPECTATIONS transposed to Arkansas with Matthew McConachy as Magwitch?
Well, not quite, but MUD from writer/director Jeff Nichols certainly has echoes of Great Expectations as well as Mark Twain’s Huck Finn tales.
Matthew McConaughy seems to have cornered the market on memorable Southern characters recently with outstanding performances in BERNIE, THE PAPER BOY, KILLER JOE and MAGIC MIKE, a renaissance for the actor after a series of rom com debacles and disasters, like the aptly named FAILURE TO LAUNCH.
Heir apparent in looks and talent to Paul Newman, McConaughy champions chipped choppers and matted hair in his portrayal of Mud, fool for love and fugitive from the law, holed up in a boat swept into a tree, legacy of a recent Mississippi Delta flood.
It’s the rare and bizarre sight of the arboreal river craft that attracts the attention of ten year old mates, Ellis and Neckbone to this Arkansas atoll, where they befriend Mud.
Ellis is Pip to Mud’s Magwitch, or maybe Huck Finn to Mud’s Jim.
Ellis is going through a watershed moment – his parent’s imminent separation, his severance from the riverbank shack he’s called home since birth, and his first blossoming of romance with a senior school girl. Part of his pact with Mud is to facilitate a reunion between the fugitive and the female for whom he has risked his freedom, a beauty called Juniper, played by Reese Witherspoon.
Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone are nothing short of sensational. Bonnie Sturdivant as May Pearl, the object of Ellis’s burgeoning desire has an inbuilt “Estelle gene” to dash Ellis’ great expectations.
Sarah Paulsen, so good as the sister in MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, here plays mum becalmed in the once besotted relationship with Dad, Ray McKinnon, bedecked aboard his Mississippi house boat, dissatisfied with his fishing business.
Rounding out the superb supporting cast is Joe Don Baker as a vengeful tycoon, Michael Shannon as Neckbone’s uncle and guardian, a crawdad harvester, and Sam Shepherd as Mud’s mentor. Shepherd’s character is shady, a sharpshooter with a shadowy past. Easy to see why Sam was attracted to this project as the script shares Shepherd sensibilities in pitch and plot.
The film is as rich as Arkansas alluvial with a story as sturdy as the Mississippi, complete with tributaries and backwaters. So many strands snake their way through this story, and so many snakes slither through it as well – cottonmouth water moccasin a venomous semi aquatic pit viper pivotal to a number of plot points.
It’s a mighty sweep of a picture and writer director Jeff Nichols navigates his narrative with an assured eye and ear. Warm as Tupelo Honey between Little Rock and a hard place, MUD is one of the emphatically unforgettable films of the year.