“There are things you can get away with in this world, and there are things you can't . . ."
In only his third feature film, writer/director Jeff Nichols offers up, to date, the best reviewed wide-release movie of 2013, Mud. Nichols previous work includes Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter (the latter of which I highly recommend, both starring Michael Shannon. Mud brings more big-names to the screen with Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon leading the cast.
Mud tells the story of two early-teenage boys, Ellis and Neckbone, who live a simple, backwoods life on the banks of the Mississippi River in Arkansas. The boys venture to a deserted island where they discover a boat lodged high in the limbs of a tree. Upon further exploration, the boat has become the hideout for a man on the run – McConaughey's title character. As Mud slowly unfolds his personal story of love and loss, the boys become convinced they need to help Mud reunite and escape with his lost love, Juniper. They all cut a deal to supply Mud with food and parts to fix the boat.
Mud plays out like a modern-day Huck Finn.
It's first and foremost a coming-of-age tale centered around Ellis and his encounter with Mud. From the very beginning, Ellis is shown to be a boy doesn't seem to have the same often sexually-driven preoccupations as the average 14 year old. One of the first scenes in the film shows Ellis' parents fighting, showing us the Ellis has already been exposed to broken relationships.
In one scene, his father says
“you can't trust love, Ellis. If you're not careful, it will get up and run out on you.”
Ellis believes in love and hope above all things. Despite the looming divorce of his own parents, Ellis acts upon his instincts that love can overcome anything. He ardently fights to make this true in his belief in Mud and Juniper's fate as well as in his own exploration of dating. Through each character's interaction with him, Ellis learns the reality that things, even love, aren't always black and white. He's faced with moral challenges and responsibilities that further his understanding of manhood, responsibility, and justice.
For me personally, this is my favorite movie of the year thus far. Aside from everything the movie gets right from a technical standpoint, the story just does something for me. Stories are the most intriguing when someone has to venture into the unknown and challenges everything they believe in. With Ellis, everything he knows is taken to a watershed moment. His strongest hopes of the power of love and his strongest roots of the rural riverboat life are threatened with extermination. We see Ellis make choices that both help and hurt him, ushering him into the reality that everything isn't always cut and dry. Characters are moved and brought to make decisions their earlier selves never would have.
Ellis learns that being a man means taking responsibility for your actions. He learns that relationships are more complicated than they may appear, and he might have to tread into unfamiliar waters to lead through them.
Mud is forced to take action against crimes he can't stomach while accepting the consequences of those actions. When confronted with his own passivity, Mud is forced to weigh the cost of his own well being against that of those around him. Each character is moved and brought to make decisions their earlier selves never would have.
From the opening credits to the final frame, Mud is an engrossing adventure that hits on all the right notes and challenges us to consider what being/becoming a man is all about.