Remember Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer? Two river rats that have adventures along the muddy Mississippi. Well ‘Mud’ is in various ways a story much like some of Twain’s tales, focusing on two young boys, in this case Ellis and Neckbone of Dewitt Arkansas. They run into a man called Mud (brilliantly played by Matthew McConaughhey) hiding out on an island in the river, running from the Law. Seems he killed a man who was abusing his girlfriend. But, even though that girlfriend (Juniper, played equally well by Reese Witherspoon) is not exactly a paragon of virtue, Mud still keeps the flame of love burning hoping she’ll return to him. O.K. so this story is one part ‘hopeless romance’ and one part Mark Twain. However you cut it, for 135 minutes you have a fascinating film about love and loyalty and coming of age, and friendship and revenge, and life in the small town South, living on a riverboat. O.K. so it is also one part Deliverance and one part Beasts of the Southern Wild (about people who live on, and off, the river, and by their wits).
If you know anything about the South, you will know that in terms of geography, it is overwhelming rural or small town, and it is no accident that the five poorest states in the USA in any given year are all Southern States– Arkansas, Miss., Alabama, West Virginia, Kentucky in no particular order. De Witt Ark. is a town of less than 4,000 people, and it provides the setting for this movie. Shoot, there are no big cities in the whole state of Arkansas. So what is life like near a big river, in a small blue collar Southern town? Well for one thing people live simply. They simply have no other choice. For another thing, they tend to eat simply as well— lots of catfish, Beanie Weenie, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches etc. For another thing life revolves around families, and dating, and sports, and making a living. Life is hard, and people live from pay check to pay check, if they even have gainful employment. Not many can go to college, not many could afford it anyway. Shoot, many drop out of high school.
So what is it like being a 14 year old boy growing up in a family experiencing marriage difficulties, living in a riverboat? This is the central story in the movie, it is Ellis’ story. The story of Mud is in some ways a subplot, intricately woven into Ellis’ story, as he becomes the friend and aide of Mud. Sam Shepherd is excellent playing the surrogate father of ‘Mud’.
Being an ole Southern boy, I liked this movie a lot. It rings true, and it has more than enough tension in the tale to keep you interested to the end. Will the Law catch up with Mud? Will Mud escape the island and the revenge seekers? Will he reunite with his true love? Will Ellis and Neckbone come of age? These and many other questions are raised by this excellent movie.
In an era of formulaic tales, and comic book heroes, this is more of a ‘back to reality’ film. And it’s a reality I have seen and known.