Film: Mud

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Mud | Director Jeff Nichols | Score: 6.3

‘Coming of age’ doesn’t just mean sexual awakening, it also has to do with the moment you realize all the ways in which adults can make horrific choices and pay for them for the rest of their lives.

In Jeff Nichols’ Arkansas Delta drama, our protagonist, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), is a 14-year-old boy with all the playfulness of a lifer in a penal colony. His youthful joy has been driven out of him by his hard-charging father (Ray McKinnon), a fisherman living on the river, who puts an enormous emphasis on the work they do together, selling his catch door-to-door in a nearby small town. Together with his faltering mother (Sarah Paulson), Ellis spends his brief pockets of free time with his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), lazing around the river and looking for any kind of adventures to call their own.

On one remote island, they find a large boat trapped up in the forest canopy — a holdover from a recent flood, they believe — and, more amazingly, a man living out of it. Sun-baked, greasy-haired and abundantly tattooed, Mud (Matthew McConaughey) comes to them a bit like a specter; suddenly appearing on the beach and fishing right next to their boat.

Mud is there under mysterious circumstances — we find out later, those involve his obsession with his childhood love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) — and most likely wanted by the cops for a murder rap. But he’s outwardly friendly and charming (“What d’ya say, boys?”), and something in his solemnity and protective reverence for Juniper strikes a chord in Ellis, who is in the process of trying to secure a girlfriend even as his parents’ marriage is crumbling all around him.

Things ratchet up, story-wise, from there, with Mud’s desire to “save” Juniper running directly against the desire of a man named King (Joe Don Baker), a twisted bail bondsman whose son Mud killed trying to defend Juniper. King has put together a squad of bounty hunters, intent on finding Mud and making him pay dearly for his trespass.

The story picks bits and pieces from an assortment of high school required reading texts: Echoes from both “Huckleberry Finn” and “Great Expectations” abound, but, like Stephen King’s novella “The Body” (the basis for “Stand By Me”), it is most effective as a kind of adolescent trap door. Nichols’ presents Ellis as a young, pragmatic kid whose fledgling steps into adulthood are plagued by their unusually high stakes. He wants to protect his mother from his father’s rages, but wants to protect his father from losing his ancestral house on the river if his mother leaves them. He wants to cultivate his own romantic interest, but the older girl he’s interested in (Bonnie Sturdivant), considers him thoroughly expendable around her friends. Finally, he sees a kind of honorable chivalry in Mud’s quest for Juniper and risks everything to help him, only to find Mud’s story is a great deal more complicated — and compromised — than what he was lead to initially believe. All he wants is to do things the right and noble way, but the world around him simply won’t let him. Absolutely no one is available to take him up on the offer.

Nichols, an Arkansas native, has a great feel for the land, and many of the remote people who populate it. Physical details are significant to him, from the old, rusty pistols mounted up in Ellis’ room near the opening credits, to his father’s busted-up sense of honor. Atmospherically, it works well, even as the story becomes increasingly spun-up. The ending, which culminates in a single night of violence and reprisals, might seem more than a tad pat, but it’s saved largely by its anchor in its characters’ plight. Ellis’ journey isn’t complete — in fact its really just starting — but he’s gotten more than a head start into the complexity and contradiction of the adult human condition.

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Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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