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November 1, 2013
Shark Bite Theatre
Mud: A River Runs Through It
by Andrew E. Lindsay

I generally enjoy Matthew McConaughey as an actor, but I rarely feel like we get to see anything in his performances much more than skin deep. Granted, there’s usually plenty of skin to see, because for some reason Mr. McConaughey’s shirt seems to come off in just about every movie he’s in. For those of you keeping score, it also comes off for one scene in Mud.

Mud, however, cleans up to be a pretty beautiful little film, and McConaughey turns in one of the best performances of his career.

Mud is a coming-of-age story about two young, teenage boys in the Arkansas delta, Ellis and Neckbone. Ellis lives with his parents in a river houseboat where he is watching their marriage come apart. Adding to his burden is the knowledge that if his parents split up, the river authority folks will have the legal right to come dismantle the only home he’s ever known and the place where his father ekes out a meager living off the river.

Neckbone, Ellis’ one true friend, is being raised by his hard-working but womanizing uncle, Galen. Everyone struggles to make a living in this impoverished area, and Galen (Michael Shannon) earns his bread by diving for oysters in the river. He mentions something he saw on an island to the boys, and they set off to have a look for themselves. Leaving the relative safety of the small tributary rivers, Ellis and Neckbone venture out into the mighty Mississippi to an uninhabited island. There, in the woods, they find something left behind by a hurricane: a small boat lodged in the top of a tree.

The boys climb the tree to claim the boat as their own, but quickly realize someone has been living in the boat. That someone turns out to be a drifter known simply as “Mud.” McConaughey’s portrayal of the marooned fugitive Mud is as compelling as it is complex. His unrequited love of a girl named Juniper has led him down many a dead-end path before bringing him back to the place of his childhood.

Mud enlists the help of Ellis and Neckbone in removing the boat from the tree and making it seaworthy, so he and Juniper can escape from their present cares and find peace and happiness somewhere far away. Ellis wants to believe in the idea of love prevailing, despite evidence to the contrary at home, so he agrees to help. Neckbone is less trusting, but ultimately is game to help Ellis in whatever adventure he’s on.

Ellis is played with a sweet and endearing earnestness by relative newcomer Tye Sheridan, whose only previous film credit was The Tree of Life. His youthful inexperience is never evident, however, and he more than holds his own with the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon (Juniper), Sam Shepard (his neighbor, Tom Blankenship), and Ray McKinnon who plays his father.

Jacob Lofland also makes an impressive film debut as Neckbone, and bears more than a passing resemblance to a young River Phoenix.

The casting is a brilliant mix of seasoned professionals and untrained locals, and writer/director Jeff Nichols created an authentic window for us to look into this world with dialogue and cadence that felt so natural you could almost smell the river in the background.

Although this is a movie about young boys and families, I could not recommend it for younger folks. The language is a little bumpy at times, but certainly consistent with the characters, and the storyline deals with some grownup issues. That being said, older teenagers and adults should watch this film together and discuss it.

Some of my favorite conversations with my kids over the years have come from watching movies together and talking about subjects that are important but sometimes uncomfortable to broach on their own. Somehow, watching someone else muddle through the complexities of life makes it easier to talk about and relate to.

Too many movies that tackle the topic of teenage love tend to overdo the angst and fall short on substance. Mud is quite the opposite. Ellis is isolated and alone by virtue of the fact that they live on the river, clinging to a dying way of life, and he has no desire to become a “townie.”

He is an only child watching his parents’ marriage unravel, and his only confidant is another teenage boy who is being raised in an even more unstable environment. Ellis naturally wants to believe that true love is powerful and binding and worth fighting for, but his parents’ pending divorce makes him confused and angry.

He latches on to the expressed love that Mud has for Juniper, and follows him, blindly, into the aftermath. Along the way, Ellis experiences the bittersweet taste of first love himself, even as he tries to make sense of the grownup relationships in his life with their constant collisions of trust and betrayal, of promises and disappointment, and despair and hope.

The story is honest even when it is heartbreaking, and its grittiness is never gratuitous. And ultimately, Mud is a story about true love.

True love is only pretty sometimes; often it’s messy and complicated and confusing. True love is more than nice words and a kiss on the cheek. It is powerful, like a muddy river that sometimes swells beyond its banks and leaves a scar on the land. But it is also what gives us life, and carries us to the place we long to go.


Copyright © 2019 by Andrew E. Lindsay Printed from NauvooTimes.com