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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

10 December

Huckleberry Finn published, 1884

On this day in 1884, Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn. It was the second book to feature the vagabond child of a vagrant drunkard father, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer being the first. Huck Finn would appear in two more short books, Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective, but only as the narrator. Huckleberry Finn is a romantic character, the free spirit not bound by the rules of bourgeois life – hence nice kid Tom Sawyer’s attraction to him. He was based on a Mississippi character called Tom Blankenship, whom Twain was friendly with as a child. “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was… ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed… he was the only really independent person – boy or man – in the community… continuously happy and envied by the rest of us.” The book’s plot largely deals with Finn running away from his father and drifting down the Mississippi River on a raft with Jim, a negro slave running away from his owner, because he fears she is about to sell him. By the end both are free – Jim because his owner has died and granted Jim his freedom in her will; Huck because his father has died. A wildly popular book for decades, largely on account of its story of freedoms large and small, Huckleberry Finn has fallen out of favour in recent years, in no small part because of the frequent use of the word “nigger”. Whether it is used in a derogatory fashion or in a much more neutral way is what the ostensible argument boils down to. Though there is also a community who won’t rest until all the bad, aka “inappropriate”, words have been removed from language, because they believe that sanitising the language equates to changing society. Hence a recent edition of the book which has edited out the offending word.

Mud (2012, dir: Jeff Nichols)

Jeff Nichols makes films about families hitting the skids. In Shotgun Stories it was half-brothers heading for a nasty showdown. In Take Shelter it was a marriage falling apart as a huge storm threatens. Nichols loves his Americana too, and there’s plenty of it in this Mississippi-set story of boys becoming men one weird summer in the company of a hobo (Matthew McConaughey) called Mud who’s suddenly turned up in their area and is hanging out down near the river’s edge. The boys are not brothers but they are as good as – the mouthy one (Jacob Lofland) and the cautious one (Tye Sheridan) – and Mud is your wayward uncle type writ large. But then types feature heavily here – Reese Witherspoon is the cock-tease love of Mud’s life who has spent a life disappointing him by running off with other men, at which point he’s usually done something really bad to the other men. It’s a Huckleberry Finn story, Mud being the grown-up Finn with a lifetime of knocks having shaped him on the way. And the result? An utterly charming though potentially dangerous free spirit who offers the boys a glimpse of life lived without restraint, but whose every decision has taken him a notch lower in status until here he is, with nothing, relying on boys to bring him food and information about the outside world. What plays out barely matters, such is Nichols’s focus on mood rather than plot, types rather than characters. But there are nuggetty plot-driven moments that cry out for attention – driven by Witherspoon (she doesn’t turn up in any old rubbish any more), Joe Don Baker as a local bad guy eager to get some payback against Mud, and Sam Shepard as Tom (name surely not a coincidence), a river dweller who knows what’s what and who’s who. But let’s not get bogged down in star worship, this is a film about the boys, their last summer of innocence, which demands and gets great performances, particularly from Lofland, who we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the future, no doubt.

Why Watch?

  • Nicholls has not made a bad film yet
  • Any film with Witherspoon is also worth watching
  • The watery Arkansas locations
  • McConaughey is acting in this one rather than just taking his shirt off

Mud – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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