Screening right at the end of the festival, Jeff Nichols's film Mud made an urgent late bid for the Palme d'Or. An atmospheric thriller and coming-of-age tale set on a slow bend in the Mississippi river, Mud has the look and feel of an American indie classic. It is a surefire best picture nominee at next year's Oscars and likely to win some kind of award at Cannes, receiving the warmest applause of the festival at its morning press screening.
Mud takes its name from its lead character, played by Matthew McConaughey, delivering the best performance of his career (and his second at the festival, after The Paperboy) as a fugitive holed up on an island in the Mississippi after murdering a rival for his lover Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud is wanted by the police and bounty hunters hired by the murdered man's family. He is discovered, however, by two 14-year-old boys, Ellis and Neckbone, who live in houseboats along one of the river's swampy tributaries. They fall under Mud's charismatic spell and are talked into helping him rebuild an old motor boat stranded in a treetop – dumped there, one assumes, years before by a flood or a tornado.
The boys are beautifully played by Tye Sheridan (who starred as one of Brad Pitt's sons in last year's Palme d'Or winner, The Tree of Life) and Jacob Lofland. The teenagers' thrill and adventure in secretly aiding Mud gives the film a Huckleberry Finn-ish flavour that blends with something akin to Rob Reiner's 1986 classic Stand By Me and Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter. For such an American film, there are also clear echoes of British classics such as Great Expectations and Whistle Down the Wind.
As the net tightens around Mud, Ellis also becomes a go-between, ferrying messages to Juniper as she takes shelter in a motel. Meanwhile, Ellis is also developing a crush on an older girl from his high school, heading for some harsh lessons about the nature of romance.
Writer-director Nichols, working with cinematographer Adam Stone, succeeds in capturing the life and the geography of his locale, its beauty and its dangers, as venomous snakes crawl in the swirling, brown water and local divers fish for oysters and crabs in their own nets. Mud, which also stars Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon, is a very fine film about innocence, father figures and love, a work that manages to be thrilling, unsentimental and emotionally rewarding. This is, sadly, an all too rare combination in so many films, particularly the other American ones that showed in this year's Cannes competition, making Mud all the more worth the wait.
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