When I began teaching English at WSU in 1971, I had the good fortune to be assigned American Literature II, a course whose syllabus mandated covering both Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The two both wrote what has been dubbed “The Great American Novel”: in Twain’s case, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” in Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” In the ensuing four decades, I taught both novels numerous times, never falling out of love with either.
Wearing my film teacher hat, I originated a seminar dealing with one of my favorite topics: film versions of works of fiction. My students — often current or future English teachers who would likely employ film in their classrooms — and I agreed that very few movies did justice to their literary source material, for a variety of reasons. The spirit of “Huck Finn” is especially hard to catch, Twain’s tone being all but uncatchable.
Happily, there is “Mud,” a film available on DVD on August 6 that owes a great deal to Twain. Indeed, one of its characters is slyly named after the real-life model for Huck’s good buddy Tom Sawyer. Though it stars Matthew McConaughey in the title role, young Tye Sheridan steals the show in a role that mixes aspects of both Tom and Huck. As his sidekick, young Jacob Lofland completes the duo’s dynamic.
“Mud” is set in a Mississippi river town, but as in “Huck Finn” the town is secondary to the river. On an island there, Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Lofland) meet a grizzled, grubby stranger who says to call him “Mud.” He’s living in a boat that has, inexplicably, become lodged up in a tree. Mud — who tells the truth, mostly — claims the boat is his but promises he’ll let them have it in return for food. When they deliver some canned goods, he reneges, upping the ante to ask them to deliver a note to a woman that he’s supposed to meet, the love of his life.
Meanwhile, Ellis has discovered that Mud is a fugitive, having shot and killed a man. But the boy is a romantic, believing in the power of love in spite of his parents’ impending separation and his own inability to connect with girls. The parentless and somewhat more skeptical Neckbone, who lives with his roguish uncle, Galen (Michael Shannon), supplies some comic relief in this quiet, tense little film.
Director Jeff Nichols’ screenplay ratchets up the tension with the appearance of Mud’s pursuers, the father and brother of the man he killed and a band of hired guns. The boys elude them (mostly) in their search for Mud’s woman, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). They are warned off by Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), a mysterious friend of Mud’s who tells them Juniper never has been any good for Mud. Ignoring Tom, they steal or liberate the various things necessary to repair the boat and perhaps realize Mud’s quixotic scheme to steal away with Juniper.
The climax strikes a bit of a false note, Nichols falling back on some movie clichés and injecting too much violence to resolve the tension. But this coming of age tale retains its belief in a certain kind of outdated (?) devotion to the beloved, whether she is worth it or not. Ellis’s courage and savvy are admirable, and 16-year-old Sheridan underplays the role nicely, belying his age, and following up on his strong debut performance in Terence Malik’s mesmerizing “The Tree of Life.” His scenes with Mud and with his parents (played with restraint by Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) are particularly effective in conveying Ellis’s complexity.
An appropriate country score by David Wingo and Adam Stone’s thoughtful cinematography add significantly to the appeal of this “PG-13” movie. Before your summer on the river fades, you can rent the video and share the pleasure.