Dir. Jeff Nichols. U.S.A.  2012.

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The term “coming of age” is normally associated with an irreparable feeling of loss of innocence. In Jeff Nichol's Mud, however, the loss of innocence is not about surrendering to cynicism and disillusionment but about a broader understanding that the world is a mixture of light and dark, and that often circumstances are complex and do not automatically explain themselves. If Mud is a coming of age tale, it is one for both children and adults, both learning that letting go is not a sign of weakness. Set in rural Arkansas on the Mississippi River, the film does not use location as a backdrop but is defined by its surroundings, as surely as is Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

Permeated by the steamy, oppressive atmosphere of the Delta, under the guidance of Cinematographer Adam Stone and composer David Wingo it becomes so real that you can feel the sweat on your brow. Though Mud has a suggestion of mythic poetry in the tradition of Terence Malick, it is not a Malick-type impressionist painting but a far grittier experience with violence and threats of violence grounding it in more conventional territory. In the film, 14-year-old Ellis (Ty Sheridan) and his best friend “Neckbone” (Jacob Lofland) are not teenagers with average big city problems. They have no computers, iphones, or tablets.

Ellis lives in a ramshackle houseboat, distanced from his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sara Paulson) who talk about separation and divorce while Neckbone is being raised by his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), an oyster diver. Later Ellis finds out that his mom, who owns the houseboat, wants to sell it and move to the city, and he rebels at the idea of being a “townie.” As the film opens, the boys, out for adventure, discover a boat on a nearby Mississippi island. Like a vision of Noah's Ark, the boat has been moored on a tree after a flood. To their surprise, they also discover that someone is living there. He is a drifter who calls himself “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey) and who tells the boys that he is on the island waiting for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), his love ever since their childhood together.

There is an overtone of danger with Mud's unkempt appearance and his stories about walking around with nails on his shoes shaped like a cross “to ward off evil spirits,” and snakes tattooed on his wrists. Though the danger is there, Mud also has a redneck charm that the boys take to. Hungry for something or someone to believe in, they help him to stay alive by bringing him food and assist him by delivering notes to Juniper in town. Though there is a wide disparity in age, Ellis and Mud, are strangely alike. Told by his father that "You can't trust love, if you're not careful, it'll up and run out on you," Ellis desperately wants to believe in it and both he and Mud need each other to keep their dreams alive.

Ellis has a good heart and a sense of decency, and helps Mud because he believes that “it is the right thing to do,” though we find out a little later that he shot and killed a man who was abusing his girlfriend and is on the run from the police and the father of the man he killed. Ellis, unaware that he is harboring a fugitive, sees his sense of self-worth compromised by having to steal a motor from a boat to help Mud, an emotion he does not hesitate to let the older man know about in one of the film's most moving scenes. McConaughey's performance stands out for his ability to draw sympathy even though we know what he has done and what he is capable of.

Supported by his old friend, Tom (Sam Shepard), said to be a former CIA hitman, Mud makes plans to escape as the plot moves inexorably to a point of resolution but it is one that might have been better left to the imagination. Mud is remarkable for its combination of reality and lyricism and the dialogue has a feeling for natural rhythms without a sense of the conversation being “movie talk.” Though it has its contrivances and head-scratching moments, these do not detract from the film's overall emotional resonance. The film is marked by outstanding performances by both newcomer Jacob Lofland, and Tye Sheridan, whose formidable screen presence and ability to convey emotions are real enough to ensnare even the most reluctant viewer.

Mud lets us know that coming of age does not have to mean a loss of the things that make being young so precious: a view of the world as being a loving place where being friends forever is a reasonable expectation, where the idealism that progress is linear and that the world is a process of becoming, and where the dreams of being an adult encompasses being a person of strength that can give and receive love. There's a part of the river where it expands into open space ahead where the horizon seems stretched to infinity, a space that has not yet been mapped. For Ellis and Mud, the world still remains uncharted. When they reach that place, you reach it together with them.



Howard Schumann

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