While exploring an island on the Mississippi River, fourteen-year-old Ellis and his friend Neckbone discover a stranded motorboat – planted firmly in the branches of a tree – that was allegedly stranded there by the last flood to pass over the island. There they encounter a man named Mud – a derelict of lofty, romantic ambitions, who explains to the boys that he is waiting on the island for his girlfriend – a woman named Juniper – to come to him so they can run away together.
At first skeptical and a little wary of the man’s crazed appearance, the boys hear out his story only to have growing feelings of sympathy for the man – Ellis especially, who identifies with his commitment to the woman he loves. Despite mounting reason to stay out of Mud’s business, the boys continue to help him in his plan to escape, his number of obstacles and enemies on the outside growing each day.
This is the general plot that defines the new movie Mud, written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Featuring Matthew McConaughey in the title role, the film’s central themes on love and commitment are embodied by his character, the man who is in fact more the movie’s charismatic catalyst than its central protagonist. More so is this film the coming-of-age story of a young boy, just at the dawning of his life, than it is the story of a man’s desperate journey to reclaim the love that has inspired him throughout his.
Ellis, played by Tye Sheridan, is a country boy living with his mother and father on their houseboat on the Mississippi. Like many boys his age, Ellis has become aware of girls not merely as objects of desire, but as individuals with whom he must learn to cultivate a code of conduct, as he goes through the motions of learning how to interact with someone he has feelings for. The question of love is of paramount importance at this young boy’s stage of life, and so everything in the movie revolves around that subject.
Unfortunately, the world Ellis lives in is not at all sensitive to his needs as a developing romantic. His parents, though loving towards him, are growing apart from one another, with the mother set on getting a divorce. The father is deeply cynical and emotionally cut-off, and tells his son that women can only ever disappointment men – “they promise so much,” without any follow-through. With questions of attraction and devotion clashing around within Ellis’ mind, this familial dysfunction only adds to the confusion that defines his life.
But in the figure of Mud, Ellis comes to find a man who embodies all the hope and faith in love that the rest of the world is telling him cannot exist. The conflict thus becomes a quintessentially American one, as the individual’s voice is contrasted by an overarching societal reality, and so Ellis’ quest to save Mud becomes not only a quest to save a man, but to save the ideals that the man represents.
This is a unique and strong film, one of the best I’ve seen so far this year. As stated, the primary conflict is based around Ellis’ journey in understanding love, but the featured story involving Mud is an excellent driving force which keeps the film going, if also slightly sensational and melodramatic. The lead performances from young Sheridan and Mr. McConaughey are intelligent and well-measured, with strong supporting work from Ray McKinnon, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepherd, and Reese Witherspoon. The direction is sensitive to the outdoors and the story’s locale, acknowledging the environment of Ellis’ Mississippi-home with a keen visual awareness that uses earth-bound symbolic devices, such as the river and snakes, as core elements to the story.
Perhaps what I admire most about this movie is the amount of thought given to conveying its subject’s inner conflicts through a well-plotted map of visual and descriptive allegory. The story feels literary in its construct; it could just as easily have been a novel as it is a movie. Reportedly inspired by the works of Mark Twain (notably Huckleberry Finn), the film also possesses elements of The Great Gatsby, featuring themes of a thoughtful protagonist disillusioned with his world, taken by the presence of a blindly ambitious romantic set on regaining the love of a distant woman. This kind of poetic elaboration to what is already an interesting story is rare of movies from any time, and demonstrates an artful sensibility that is always welcome but not often seen in American movies.
One of the hardest things for each of us, growing up, is the discovery that life – and love – is not exactly what we’ve thought it to be. This movie captures that discovery with admirable clarity, bringing us into Ellis’ placid yet tumultuous world with subjectivity and a real respect for people in love, while refraining from any over-indulgent tones of sentimentality. A well-conceived, valuable film, Mud is an excellent example of how resourceful contemporary moviemakers can be in facilitating both literary devices and personal experience as a means of creating worthy entertainment.
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