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He ain't no Mudhoney, that's for sure

dir: Jeff Nichols

Mud continues a fairly stellar run for an actor people wrote off as a vacant himbo jock a long time ago. 'People' being me. And yet somehow, inexplicably, the Renaissance of Mathew McConaughey continues.

But it's not even his film. Mud firmly belongs to one of the two boys who are the film's leads, not to the character of the title. It's a coming-of-age story for a boy called Ellis, a boy living a hard scrabble life on the banks of the Mississippi River, amongst and amidst a whole bunch of riverbillies or swampbillies, whatever the right term is. And they all earn our sympathies, every one of them. Every single goddamn one of them.

Ellis is the one going through the grinding agony of finding out that life is one crushing, disillusioning disappointment and letdown after another. And there's some joy, beauty and hope along the way.

It has nothing to do with Winter's Bone, another stellar flick about a young kid trying to get by in an impoverished and shitty world, but it reminded me of it a bit. It has another strong performance by a teenager in a complicated role.

Two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), have made a find, a holy grail - treasure trove of a find. After some wicked flooding, they find a boat up a tree which, despite its location, seems to be in good nick. Because the boat is of substantial size and has a deep draft (they're just used to river rat skiffs, not something ocean-going), it represents all the things these kinds of vessels can represent, whether it's a car, a plane or a boat. Freedom, or money, or getting away from the shittiness of one’s daily life.

Their lives aren’t impoverished-picking through garbage for food scraps- type experiences, but they’re not on the more comfortable rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Ellis is lucky enough to have two parents, as they live in a house that essentially looks like a mobile home on water, but there is fractiousness in their relationship. We don’t know what the source of the conflict is, just that there is conflict, and Ellis dreads what it means.

I feared this would be the typical Southern white-trash ‘guys beating their wives while wearing wifebeaters’ type of scenario, but it’s far more nuanced than that. The father seems like he’s going to be the type, the perpetually angry/sadistic Old Testament God father figure, but he’s not. He is surely a stern figure, and there is a fearful element to many of his scenes, but the film goes against the grain by giving him reasons for both his character and his intentions, and balances them out by making him a loving and caring father, even if he is a surly and suspicious drunk.

Ellis and his mate Neckbone, his mate looking like the product of family breakdown, poor nutrition and perhaps fetal alcohol syndrome, find a guy living in or around the boat. Obviously this is Mud, obviously the character is played by McConaughey, but not obviously, this ragged man becomes a beacon for the boys.

He's obviously in some trouble, but we don't know how much or for what. He's charming and loquacious to the boys, filled with anecdotes and advice about all sorts of living. Ellis is immediately seduced (get your minds out of the gutter), but Neckbone, quite rightly, suspects Mud is full of shit.

See, first impressions aren't worth shit. I thought Neck would be played as the dumb, irritating side-kick to the main character, but he turns out to be the voice of reason. The more that is revealed about Mud and his circumstances, the more Ellis is entranced, but the more Neck is suspicious and reasonable. They enter into an arrangement whereby the boys, reluctantly understanding that they're not going to get their hands on the boat, will help Mud out of his pickle of a predicament, in exchange for his gun that he always keeps in his waistband.

But why? Why do you think Ellis wants so desperately to help Mud out? Is it because Mud is promising him a better life, or access to the world of adulthood that he so desperately craves, or for his attention and easily-earned approval? It could be any of those, but what the story ends up hinging on is Ellis's single-minded belief in love.

No, sorry, not love, but Love. The pure platonic ideal of Love (as opposed to Platonic love, which is the eternal statement of 'I think we should just be friends' from one horrified person to a desperate one). See, Mud has made of his whole life a shrine to his love for a classy lassie called Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Yes, I'm sorry to say there's a Reese Witherspoon in the flick. Mud has loved Juniper since they were both children, and every stupid or criminal thing he's done, including whatever it is that sees him hiding out on an island in the Mississippi, in his whole life has either been for her or because of her, to here him tell it.

Ellis believes so strongly in their love, in the possibility that their love will triumph over all, that he completely ignores the fact that the whole world doesn't work like that for anyone, let along two star-crossed lovers, one of whom doesn't even really love the other that much. For Ellis it becomes totemic, because if Mud's love for Juniper can triumph, then his own parents will be able to keep it together, and also, love in Ellis's life will work out too.

He's old enough to think that love is a really important thing, as well as to think that he's feeling it himself for an older local girl; he's not old enough to know that just because you tell someone you love them, even if you believe it's true, even if they believe you, it doesn't magically unlock their heart or the world in order for you to get your way.

The real reason this is a coming-of-age flick isn't just because the protagonist is young; it's because stuff happens, a lot of stuff happens, and the main character comes out of it hopefully alive, with many of their illusions about life utterly destroyed. Kids invariably are horribly disillusioned by life, because unfortunately that is the main thing hard-earned experience does to us: shows us how naive we were to believe many of the things we believed.

The limitations of people, the limits of love, are these the things kids really need to learn? Probably, but this flick, I don't think, is really aimed at kids. Especially considering the ending, which looked like the ending of LA Confidential, it's an adult audience being courted. In looking at the world through the eyes of these boys, though, we're perhaps going back in time ourselves, thinking of our own naive young selves, and the stupid, fragile as crystal things we loved and believed in at the same age before the world crushed our spirits. It's maybe a nostalgic trip, but looking through Ellis's eyes was still a beautiful experience for me, one I'm grateful for. I was never as mature or sensible as these kids at that age, but I probably had as much hope.

McConaughey is great in this. it's not an entirely showy role for most of its length, not obvious Oscarbait, but more of the decent work he's being doing lately. There's nothing lazy about the way he plays this character. He can't rely on just being charming or smiling or on his abs. He also gets to look a bit seedy, a bit desperate, and it suits the character and the performance. This character is desperately hungry for something, and it informs everything the character does, but it doesn't rise to the level of an insane obsession. It also, when he sees what effect his plans have on the boys, and when the trouble that's following him begins to endanger him, makes him focus on what's really important.

I can't say enough good things about this film. In the last few weeks I've gotten to see a lot of strong films, and this is one of the strongest. Even the soundtrack, which I don't even have to look up to see if it had a bunch of Dirty Three songs, because Warren Ellis's violin is as distinctive as McConaughey's chiselled abs, helped me along. Except for the Witherspoon, everyone and everything else falls together to deliver a stupendous film that is very much of its time and place, but also painfully universal.

After all, we were all young once, and so, so very dumb.

9 ways in which I was trying to work in a few Mark Twain references but couldn't in the end out of 10

"So you got your heart broke? Don't walk around with a shit look on your face. Get back in there, get your tip wet. You hear me?" - I don't know if this is the best or worst advice ever - Mud