Mud (2012)

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Written & Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Setting: Arkansas

Fourteen-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) lives on the Mississippi River in rural Arkansas with his parents.

He helps his father (Ray McKinnon) earn a living off the river, catching and selling fish. In his down time, he and his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) explore on the river, a bit like a modern-day Tom and Huck.

The boys discover a homeless man, “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey), stranded on a small island. Ellis is intrigued by the man and feels compassion for him. As the boys discover Mud’s secrets, they agree to help him evade trouble and reunite with the woman he loves (Reese Witherspoon). Watching his parents’ marriage dissolve and in the throes of his first serious crush, Ellis needs to believe in the strength of this relationship, and in the possibilities of long-term love, and see their story end well.

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At moments, this film seemed to skirt a bit too close to being a typical, predictable coming-of-age story. But it proved to be much more than that because of the richness of the storytelling and character development, outstanding performances, and stunning cinematography as well as some unexpected plot twists that make this movie quite a ride.

The cinematography is gorgeous — many frames seem like works of art. The film closely observes the vibrant natural world in the muddy flatlands, revealing beauty and wonder in a terrain many people would find dull.

In keeping with this naturalistic slant, the world and people this filmmaker created seem incredibly real. I felt like a voyeur in the characters’ real world rather than a viewer of a Hollywood filmmaker’s rendition of a tough working class life. At the same time, there is a slightly eerie, mysterious quality.

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All the characters, including minor ones, are multifaceted and more complex than they initially appear. I loved the fact that the characters surprised me. For example, I was engrossed with Ellis’s dad — I loved his character arc. In the first scene of the movie, I saw him barricaded behind his newspaper while his wife, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson), clearly emotional, tried to talk to him. At that moment, I almost wrote him off. But he evolves from a man who’s doing his best to be an effective husband and father, simply by providing for his family and teaching his son a strong work ethic, to someone who openly wants an emotional connection. His growth is compelling and real because it’s handled with subtlety. His character, and other men in the movie, also helped me see women and relationships from the point of view of an “old school” kind of male.

I also appreciated the men’s awkwardness in communicating with women and their constant struggle between desire and longing and estrangement and frustration. This is what many, if not most, relationships are like in the real world. I love the fact that when Ellis wants to learn to talk to girls, he has to rely on Neckbone’s uncle, Galen (Michael Shannon), who clearly lacks polish in that area. Galen offers Ellis a helpful book on the mystery of communicating with the opposite sex (“Be sure to do the worksheets in the back.”)

Another point in favor of this movie: Sam Shepherd in a fabulously quirky, kick-ass role! It had been too damn long since I’d seen that man on screen.

Mud is an absorbing story about love, estrangement, and yearning and about how profoundly difficult it is to really know other people or understand the complex connections that make up their lives. While at first glance, it seems to be a familiar coming-of-age tale, the storytelling, acting, and cinematography are woven together to create something truly unique.

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