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While they’re exploring a Mississippi River island, looking for a boat that’s been caught in the trees during a flood, 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone find a fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Mud is hiding out because he has killed a man, but his sympathetic story draws the boys into helping him as he attempts to escape and be reunited with the woman he loves, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). The authorities are after Mud, and the small Arkansas town is being staked out by men who want to take revenge on him.

Sheridan plays Ellis with straightforward charm and honesty in an excellent performance. McConaughey is at his best: mysterious, likeable, a little bit off. He manages to make his character believable as an innocent in spite of the fact that he clearly states his guilt. Mud seems somehow of the earth; he has a hint of the mystic about him. There are a few moments where he seems to disappear and reappear. Between his boots that leave marks in the shape of a cross in the sand and his position crouched over a fire on the beach, you can’t help but catch hints of Jesus. He has been bitten by a snake in the past, and snakes feature heavily in the imagery of the movie.

Back across the river, life is less magical. Husband and wife break bonds, teens fight, and clueless adults use each other. Everyone is looking for a real connection, but no one seems able to keep one. The ensemble of characters consists of plenty of shaded—and shady—people. No one has pure motives; on the other hand, only one or two of them are purely evil. Strikingly, a character described as the devil himself asks his men to pray for vengeance with him, like a coach leading his team into the most important game.

Jeff Nichols, who last directed the brooding, tension-filled Take Shelter, gives us another moody film full of earthy imagery and symbolism. Nichols also delves again into rural America and the lives of the not-so-rich and famous; the tired little Arkansas town takes a lead role. Houseboat life on the river is endangered, but people continue to love and hope and fight and dream. The mystical, watery, but gritty atmosphere is reminiscent of Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Mud is a meditation on many things—truth, love, authority, right and wrong. The title says it all—this is the story of muddy and muddled life. There are no easy answers, and that is the hard lesson wide-eyed Ellis learns. Even something as wonderful as first love has its dark side; trusting others might bring you joy or deep sadness or both. This is a Stand by Me for grownups—an awakening to the gray, uncertain areas of life that bring both beauty and pain. (Lionsgate)

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