Rescue me from the cruel sword,
and deliver me from the hand of aliens,
whose mouths speak lies,
and whose right hands are false.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room f or the wrath of God;* for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.
Set along the Arkansas shoreline of the mighty Mississippi River, director Jeff Nichols film of love, friendship and violence might call to mind Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in that two of the three main characters are 14 year- old boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best friend with the curious name of Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Their coming of age, especially that of Ellis (Tye Sheridan), is brought on by two factors—their meeting up with an on-the-run scruffy man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey), and the impending break-up of the marriage of Ellis’s parents Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) and Senior (Ray McKinnon).
Boating out to their favorite haunt, an island in the middle of the river, the boys are delighted to discover an old cabin cruiser deposited by a flood high up in a tree. But then they discover a bag with some food in it, a boot print, and soon the owner, Mud. Neckbone is more skittish, but Ellis takes a liking to Mud, and the boys brokers a deal—in exchange for obtaining some food and other requests, ownership of the boat when he leaves, plus for Neckbone, the gun Mud keeps tucked in his belt. The “other” leads Ellis to sneak in and steal an old motor from a junkyard, which, turning out to be more valuable than he had thought, lands the boy in trouble with his parents when they are told of the theft.
Mud reveals that he is on the run and waiting to hook up with his promiscuous girlfriend “ Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who is holed up in a cheap motel. Complicating matters, Mud killed a man abusing her, and dead man’s father has sent his other son and a team of bounty hunters in hot pursuit of him. As the boys try to help Mud get in touch with Juniper they have to contend with Carver (Paul Sparks), brother of the murdered man, who mounts a watch on Juniper in the hope that she will lead him and his gang to Mud. He is in constant touch with the vengeful father King (Joe Don Baker). Ellis receives a black eye for intervening when he comes to the motel and finds Carver abusing Juniper.
Also, the boy, while struggling to understand how what he thought was his parents’ love-based marriage is falling apart, encounters his own first crush in the person of May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), a high schooler obviously several years older than he. His attempts to impress her leave him sadder but wiser. Still another adult whom the boys encounter is a neighbor living across the river from Ellis, Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepherd), a father figure for Mud. Tom had been a sharpshooter in the Army, but lives quietly now in his houseboat. When Ellis goes to him for help, the old man is upset that Mud is in trouble again. He refuses to become involved at first, but at the climax proves crucial in protecting his protégé.
This film about people on the fringes of society is worth our time and attention. Its characters will likely not find their way into your church, but they are the very kind with whom Christ hung out with when he walked the earth. Mud in particular would not be your idea of a moral exemplar for 14 year-old boys to associate with, and yet we see that he is capable of rising to moral heights in two incidents—one involving Ellis when the boy faces death; and Neckbone and the gift of the pistol. The ending of the film might be somewhat morally ambiguous and leave us wondering about the future. This is a film in which matters are not neatly resolved, but then isn’t life often like that?
Might be a spoiler in the last two questions.
1. Describe the two boys. How does their first encounter with Mud reveal the character of each? Which is the more trusting, and which the more cautious?
2. What are the parents of the boys like, especially those of Ellis? How is Mary Lee’s goals apparently changed from those of her husband’s?
3. The boys enjoy certain haunts away from adult supervision: did you have such places when you were their age, and if so, what were they? (My friends and I were fortunate to live near woods, so this was our very own place.)
4. What is Juniper like? How are she and Mud obviously mismatched?
5. How might Carver and King benefited from the advice/warning of the apostle Paul in Romans 12.19?
6. What do you think Ellis learns from the disappointing outcome of May Pearl’s cruel flirtation with him?
7. How does Mud’s better nature rise to the occasion? Does his act make it easier for you to accept the film’s ending? Why or why not?
8. For an enjoyable/informative article by Bearden Coleman “Mud and the Case of the Southern Film” posted on 4/26/2013 at Christianity Today’s website copy and paste this in your search window: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/april-web-only/mud-and-the-case-of-the-southern-film.html?utm_source=entertainment&utm_medium=Newsletter&utm_term=