Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mud -- can we believe in love?

Director: Jeff Nichols, 2012 (PG-13)

It’s hard to believe Jeff Nichols has only made three films. Like his previous two, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, Mud is set in the south and has a slow pacing that fits the character-driven nature of the film. Until it explodes with violence at the end. It is not a thriller in the classic sense, but certainly increases the tension as the film progresses.

Nichols wrote all three films, but of the three Mud is the most ambitious and most developed. Prior to shooting the film, he described it as Sam Peckinpah directing a Mark Twain short story. And that seems apt. Peckinpah’s violence manifests itself, but Twain’s river-bound story is crucial. Indeed, the Mississippi is central to the film, being almost a character in itself.

Despite this, the movie is at heart a coming-of-age story, intermingled with thriller and crime genres. This sounds implausible, possibly impossible, but Nichols pulls it off with aplomb, mainly due to strength of script and quality of acting. In the lead role as Mud, Matthew McConaughey (The Lincoln Lawyer) delivers one of his best performances. Looking every bit the bum, with dirty clothes and chipped tooth, he conveys an easy charm that covers a latent danger. Reese Witherspoon (This Means War) is his white-trash on-again, off-again girlfriend. But the star of the show is Tye Sheridan (Tree of Life) who plays Ellis, a high-school freshman who drives the film and its theme of “can love be trusted”.

The film opens with Ellis and his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) making plans to secretly take the outboard-powered skiff on the river to an island in the Mississippi. En route, Ellis overhears his parents arguing loudly in their redneck houseboat. Not all is well on the home front.

When the two boys arrive at the island, they find what they are looking for: a boat in a tree. But they find more than that. There is someone living in it, and returning to their skiff they discover Mud. An enigmatic, almost legendary figure, he wins them over with tales of wonder and adventure. But he needs them, and has a hidden agenda. He is in love with Juniper, who is staying in a motel in town. He needs them to contact her.

While in town, Ellis sees a high school girl he has a crush on. Though two years older than him, he is prepared to voice his interest and his desire. Indeed, he does this in a visible confrontive way that somehow wins her over, yet in a vague and ambiguous manner.

There are three love relationships entwined in this tale. All are in different stages. All are in trouble. Ellis’ parents are in the midst of separation. Mud and Juniper have a complicated relationship that is related as the film unfolds. And Ellis and MayPearl experience the beginning flickers of love.

Indeed, when Mud asks for the boys’ help, Neckbone sees the danger and the self-centeredness in the appeal and wants to dismiss it. But Ellis, still a romantic and innocent teen, shouts out, “He loves her, Neck. He told me.” For him, love is central, love is critical. Love is worth pursuing, love is worth risking all for. Even if that love is experienced by someone else. Ellis wants to believe in love. He needs to believe in it.

We all want to believe in love. We were created to love, to relate to others. There is no wonder that one of the most beloved chapters in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 13, centered on love itself. And God is love (1 Jn. 4:8); our maker is defined in essence by love.

But we are also by nature broken people. Original sin, encountered at the fall (Gen. 3), has caused this. Though we are capable of love, in our natural broken state we have a tendency to selfishness that hurts and damages even those we love. We fail them. And then comes the question, can love survive our brokenness? Is there a love we can really believe in?

In the film, Mud’s history inevitably draws dark characters to him. Southern mafia and bounty hunters appear, and with them the inexorable violence. This is a violence that destroys people and relationships, just as the harsh and violent words of Ellis’ parents destroys their marital love.

Ellis’ quest is really for this love he can believe in. When he discovers that the love he trusted in, through all three relationships in view, has failed, his innocence dissipates like the morning mist. The climax leaves him slightly more worldly and jaded. He has come of age. His childlike trust has given way to an adolescent twinkle, one that now looks on other May Pearls. And Mud? Well, his role as catalyst in the story is fulfilled.

Despite the somewhat tragic view of love on display, we can look for a better answer to the question in mind. There is a love we can really believe in. It is rooted in a person who is pure to a fault, unlike Mud. God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18). His essence is love, and he beckons us to come embrace that love (Jn. 3:16). Only as we do so, as we taste and see that he is good (Psa. 34:8), can we begin to banish the bitterness and cynical boredom we often experience. In him alone, is true love, because he alone is love. If we believe in him, we can really believe in love.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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