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Mud

Year: 2012
Studio: Lionsgatew
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker, Michael Shannon, Sarah Paulson

If you had to pitch this meeting to an executive in an elevator ride, you could do worse than call it 'hillbilly melodrama via Huckleberry Finn with the wonder of childhood mixed in for good measure'.

It has a well-crafted outlook similar to Room or What Maisie Knew, in that we see everything through the eyes of the two young protagonists, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), and it's only as details about what they're watching emerge that we, as adults, understand what's going on.

For example, they think the mysterious, enigmatic man living on an island downstream from their Mississippi river community homes and calling himself Mud (Matthew McConaghuey) is some kind of tearaway folk hero from a comic book or pirate novel. It's not until they (and we) learn more about what he's doing there that you'll come to see he's little more than a criminal and a deadbeat.

But after they discover Mud on the island and agree to help him fix up a boat that's been abandoned there (actually jammed halfway up a tree after a storm), he becomes a kind of big brother that's missing in their home lives. Neckbone has a distant stepfather in Galen (Michael Shannon), and Ellis' cold, angry father and his bitter, sad mother (Sarah Paulson) are on the verge of separating.

They find purpose and excitement in stealing provisions from the mainland and bringing them to Mud's houseboat hideaway, and even though you wonder if it's all just stories he tells to keep the boys interested, there does seem to be a cast of characters surrounding Mud and his reclusiveness, including his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who's holed up in town, a loner who lives across the water from Ellis, Tom (Sam Shepard) and a mobster (Joe Don Baker) who wants Mud dead.

It looks like a Huck and Finn parable and has the point of view of a Peanuts cartoon – where the adults all just honk about weird stuff the boys don't understand too much – then it abruptly turns when the mobster's goons descend on Ellis' house with guns blazing, Mud and the family suddenly thrust into a Jason Statham action movie sequence.

Up until then it's a little bit colourless and dour, but it seems to get the textures and feel of the locale spot on. Both the kids are likeable to watch and good actors beyond their years – it's a bit ironic that Sheridan wasn't called upon to do much in either of the other films of his I've seen (The Stanford Prison Experiment and Ready Player One).

Nichols is an interesting if not entirely successful director. He gets the sights and sounds right and his casting is good, this just feels like it needed another element. The irony is that when he added one to this kind of rural-set, slow burn tension thriller – overt sci-fi in Midnight Special – I didn't think that worked either.

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