Year Released: 2013
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard
(PG-13, 230 min.)
“Time is a river without banks.” Marc Chagall
A tale as timeless as the Mississippi where love and loneliness live side by side on its muddy shores. Matthew McConaughey is a mysterious stranger who touches the lives of two young boys who find dark undercurrents in their familiar river.
When fourteen-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best pal “Neckbone” (Jacob Lofland) discover “a boat lodged in a tree, twenty feet off the ground on an island in the middle of the river,” it is a dream come true, the perfect hideaway fort. Except that the “fort” is already taken, as evidenced the canned beans and loaf of bread squirreled away in the cabin. And then made abundantly clear by the rag-tag stranger who suddenly appears fishing alongside the bank.
Three things distinguish this coming of age tale that takes place in the bayou country of Arkansas: the quality of the acting, the realistic portrayal of characters and their setting, and a unique spin of what some have called the American monomyth.
As evidenced by his recent films, such as The Lincoln Lawyer , and Bernie, McConaughley, Texas’ own “slacker,” has given up his Hollywood slog through forgettable romantic comedies and returned to his indie roots. In an Oscar worthy performance, he is definitely at home here with his curly locks long and greasy, his leading man looks hidden behind grungy stubble. He sports a snake tattoo on his arm, nails pounded into his boots in the shape of a cross, and a smile that is at least one part con man. Neckbone doesn’t trust him one bit, but the romantic Ellis is drawn in by his story of Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the beauty Mud is waiting for on his hidden island.
Tye Sheridan play fourteen-year-old Ellis with fragile bluster, desperately seeking idealized love as an antidote to the crumbling marriage he lives with at home. Ellis’ loyalties, whether to the romanticized Mud, the flawed beauty, Juniper, or even May Pearl, the high school flirt who toys with him, are sudden, rash, and absolute. He is the embodiment of Robert Frost’s poem, with an emphasis on the last four lines.
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
He wears his inconsistencies naturally; his stoic silence, his mask of indifference, and his emotional outbursts never feel like acting.
Unlike Hollywood’s usual spin on the South, which they usually people with hypocritical preachers and toothless redneck bigots, Jeff Nichols portrays this backcountry town with low-key accuracy. Ellis’ dad (Ray McKinnon) makes his living from fishing, toting his catch to local restaurants in a pickup lined with ice chests, but he has a stern dignity and sense of honor, and he is not afraid to tell his son he loves him. His neighbor, Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) shoots snakes from his porch, but he has a history and wisdom that makes him a force to be reckoned with.
Like Winter’s Bone Mud neither exploits nor caricatures these rural poor as is often done by commercial Hollywood, giving them the same unflinching dignity we have come to expect for our urban poor. This is no Beasts of the Southern Wild with its poetic pretensions and condescending local color, giving us a freak show peak at nature’s macabre anomalies to reassure us of our relative normalcy.
Finally, Mud re-imagines what some have called the American monomyth – a nameless stranger who comes out of nowhere to rescue us and then disappears into obscurity.
Mud is not nameless; his name, in fact, suggests his earthiness as well as his disgrace, and he appears to create rather than solve problems. But there is still some magic in this creature, who twice risks it all for the boy he fears he has let down.
There is magic in this film that draws us in as well, a mystery in its deep currents that lures us from our safe banks. Not to be missed.
At Mud’s island retreat the pickings are slim. The fish don’t want to bite, but the snakes do, and the best he can manage is stale bread and a cold can of beans or pumpkin pie filling.
Arkansas can do much better, don’t you think? Given that Mud is a wanted man, we couldn’t resist this delicious appetizer wrapped up in a round of sourdough bread called Arkansas Sin.
Arkansas Sin Appetizer
Original recipe makes 10 servings
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
4 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
8 ounces diced cooked ham
1 small onion, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
1 (1 pound) loaf round sourdough bread
1 cup buttery crackers
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
In a medium bowl, mix together the cream cheese, Cheddar cheese, ham, onions and jalapeno peppers. Cut a circle out of the top of the bread, and remove the center leaving a 1 inch shell of bread. Fill bread with the cheese mixture.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes in the preheated oven, until the dip is heated through. Serve with crackers for a wonderful taste experience!