CANNES, France – The Cannes film festival on Saturday wrapped up the movies in competition wading deep in the Mississippi river with "Mud," a heart-wrenching, Mark Twain-influenced tale of a teenage boy searching for the meaning of life in a harsh world and starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon.
With snake bites, shootouts, and a happy ending, it is proudly — even blatantly — inspired by the bard of the Mississippi. Stellar performances from 15-year-old Tye Sheridan — who starred in last year's Palme d'Or winner "The Tree of Life" — and McConaughey separate it from a pack of films in competition set in the colorful American South.
Director David Nichols' third film was the culmination of his film work so far and a decade of effort. The 33-year-old managed to scrape enough money together thanks to the critical success of his previous two pictures: 2007's "Shotgun Stories," and last year's award-winning "Take Shelter."
The story of young Ellis on his search for a parental role model borrows from the sacrifice and friendship themes of Twain's classic "Huckleberry Finn," whose fatherless main character embarks on a Mississippi odyssey of self-discovery.
Nichols said Twain's bittersweet tales immortalizing the "mile-wide tide" of the Mississippi river have stayed with him since he first read them when he was young. He's frankly unapologetic about the obvious influence: "If you're going to steal from someone, steal from someone really intelligent. And I stole from Mark Twain."
Young actor Jacob Lofland, who played Ellis' best friend, Neckbone, testified to Twain's influence. Tutored on the book, Lofland recognized parts of the work in the films script. He said, only semi-jokingly, "I found out that a lot of stuff (from the novel) just wandered onto the script. We had a word with (Nichols) about that."
McConaughey plays the eponymous character, the woebegone Mud, who is hiding on a Mississippi island from vengeful bounty hunters after shooting a man in Texas. Madly in love with Witherspoon's unreliable, smoldering blond Juniper he enlists the support of Ellis and Neckbone to help win her love. McConaughey's performance has wowed critics at the festival.
The Oscar-winning Witherspoon, who spent an hour in a hot, packed room with journalists despite being heavily pregnant, was born in Louisiana and took the relatively small role because it felt like home to her.
"There are very few movies about the American South that are accurate," she said.
"Mud" — the Cannes's official competition's last entry — joins "Lawless" and "The Paperboy" on the list of Southern films at the festival. Nichols explained the phenomenon simply: "Well, Southerners are good story-tellers."
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