Monday, October 7, 2013

Mud and the River

The plot in the film, Mud, unfolds like the storyline you will discover in fine literature. It is multi-layered and feeds the intellect. It is a coming of age story about two boys, Ellis and Neckbone, in rural Arkansas after a flood, that find a boat in a tree on an island in the river. Living in the tree they find the aptly named Mud, a homeless fugitive surprisingly well acted by Matthew McConaughey. Ellis, aged fourteen, becomes interested in Mud's view of the world, a mysterious combination of love and revenge. Ellis' parents have recently announced their separation rocking his understand of the world. His sense of love and place is being challenged for the first time in his short life. It also means that his home, an old river houseboat, will be lost to him, dismantle by the river authority. He will have to move into town and leave the river life behind.

I have blogged more than once about rivers. I do not hide my love of rivers. Rivers are the perfect poetic image. Whether it is Twain, Langston Hughes or Bruce Springsteen, the image of the river elicits the movement of time, of destiny and of growth. Life rolls by like a river flowing from the mountains to the sea with many rises and lows. The river eddies through the countryside, unpredictable and sometimes harsh, leaving in its wake beauty and destruction.  Mud portrays this beautifully with some stunning filming and story telling. The river is shown as an economic engine bringing livelihood to fishermen and boats men to the small Southern community of DeWitt. It is a spiritual and natural conduit to life and their connection to the outside world (at least in the film). "This river brings a lot of trash down. You gotta know what's worth keeping and what's worth letting go," says Galen, Neckbone's uncle who is raising him. Mud, the character, is the metaphorical trash he is talking about and like his namesake isn't easily nailed down. It is a universal story of the outside world invading on an insular existence. Mud is half in between these worlds, rejected by both, the river and the land.

You can barely tell what era the film is based in. This contributes to its universality. When I lived in Boston I attended a writer's workshop taught by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. One of the things he said that stuck with me was that a writer becomes "universal by being provincial" (I am paraphrasing here). This is what you have with Mud. This is a small film with a small story that is really just about a boy's perception of love being formed by the actions of the adults around him. The smallness of its theme makes it huge in concept. It is universal in many ways. No matter what town you grew up in, you know of a character like Mud who was very much apart of the town, but outside of it as well. The large big budget films, that will fill the Oscar nomination list, don't begin to illicit the emotions that a small one like Mud does. Every year when the nominations for Oscars comes out, I usually just shake my head and think, "What a joke!" but occasionally they get it right.  Three years ago, Winter's Bone made it on the list of nominations along with this star, the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence. It didn't win anything but at least it got the recognition that it deserved.  It too was better than most of the other films on the list of nominees. Mud deserves some accolades, the big budget films that rake in millions do not. They have already gotten their recognition.

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