Love can transcend and conquer all. Humans can't. The problem is that love has been entrusted to humans, and from this fact come the conflicts of life. How relationships grow or collapse... the lengths we'll go and limits we reach... the way we perceive ourselves and others... all come down to love. Not our capacity to feel it, but rather our limited ability to fulfill it.
We don't simply believe that love exists; we innocently believe it can be trusted. Awakening to the loss of that trust for the first time is what generally defines a Coming of Age story, and at its core that’s what Mud is. It comes wrapped in a very tense crime thriller, slow-boiling in a Southern Gothic stew that warrants comparison to the works of Flannery O’Connor.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) doesn't just effectively blend genres but also numerous subplots and character dynamics – and does so with emotional weight and power. This is sophisticated filmmaking of the highest order. So many elements should be competing against each other – for time, tone, focus, and emotional investment – and yet they don't because all coalesce around one concurrent theme: can love be trusted?
That question is explored not via the title character but through the journey of a 14-year-old boy named Ellis (Tye Sheridan, The Tree of Life). Ellis is an only child who lives in a makeshift houseboat on the riverbanks of rural Arkansas with his parents. Early one morning, he and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) set out to a nearby island. They're on a mission, but we don’t know what for. The suspense established is atmospheric, palpable, and sets the tone for what's to come.
I won't divulge what the boys find (it's a little unusual, serves as an interesting visual, and has its own air of mystery), but just when they think it’s their own secret discovery, Ellis realizes that someone else knows about it too – first by clues at the site, and then footprints that show they're being followed.
There is a stranger on the island, and he goes by the name Mud (Matthew McConaughey, The Lincoln Lawyer). Dirty, tattooed and chain-smoking through a chipped tooth, Mud is a man living off the grid. His amiable charm quickly endears him to the boys. Mud seems like a good man, and even though he probably shouldn't be trusted, he and Ellis have a genuine connection. They are desperate to believe in the same thing.
That desperation has brought Mud to where he is now: stranded, destitute and on the run from forces both legal and criminal. And it's all for a woman (Reese Witherspoon, Water for Elephants), all for love. Ellis's angst is similar, and twofold: at home, his once-loving parents are fighting and growing estranged; at school, he falls for an older girl who returns his affections with mixed signals. The people Mud and Ellis look to for love say - and even mean - one thing, but do another. Ellis needs Mud to succeed because it’s his last hope of love being true and trustworthy.
As Ellis, Tye Sheridan is an absolute revelation. His brooding innocence recalls a young River Phoenix; strong yet fragile, at times heartbreaking. He's a young talent to be reckoned with. In a career-best turn, McConaughey equally mesmerizes. His Mud is a liar who's pure to a fault, an enigmatic mix of charisma and confusion, certainty and fallibility.
Like Mud himself, this film both fascinates and provokes, proving itself a very effective thriller that boasts qualities both literary and cinematic.
Like Ellis, we long for love to prevail even when everything says that's a naïve and foolish notion.
And like any coming of age story, the loss of innocence is unavoidable. When it happens, people end up concluding one of two things: either Love fails, or humans do. If you believe the former, you're bound for bitterness. If you believe the latter, you'll open yourself up to grace.
- Drugs/Alcohol: Drinking in a bar. One man smokes regularly throughout the film.
- Language/Profanity: Ongoing use of the S-word throughout, on several occasions by two teens. Five uses of the H-word, five of the A-word, two SOBs, three instances of the Lord’s name in vain. One use of the middle finger.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Three uses of the T-word slang for breasts. A man and woman stand close together, intimately. Two teens kiss briefly. A man makes a crude reference about having sex. Covers of Penthouse; no nudity.
- Violence/Other: A gunfight/ambush scene involving a lot of people. Some people are shot and killed; at times violent/graphic in depiction but not bloody. Two instances of teens in a fist-fight. A woman is beaten by a man. A boy is punched by a man. Someone falls into a river bed of snakes, is snake-bitten.
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