The gritty, coming-of-age tragedy that is Mud

Sometimes you need to read a book or watch a movie that vividly portrays the tragedy that is the human experience in order to be reminded of the sorry state from which we are delivered in Christ. Last weekend I happened upon a little-known recent movie starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon with the forgettable title of Mud (2013). Actually, the real stars of the movie are the pair of adolescent actors that portray two young teens, Ellis and Neckbone (yes, Neckbone), in the deep South. This virtually unknown film that showed on limited release earlier this year scored a whopping 98% rating among movie critics on Rotten Tomatoes, a respected movie ratings website. McConaughey and Witherspoon turn in solid performances as two washed-up losers, Mud and Juniper, whose youth and hope have faded with every bad decision they have made. In contrast, the two boys from broken and worsening family situations cling to sanity and virtue by a thread, as the adults in their lives come apart at the seams.

The movie is gritty, but not extremely so. Like all coming-of-age movies (think of 1986’s Stand by Me) the reality of teen boys coming into adulthood includes profanity, violence, and sexual references (although they are not as bad as they could have been in this movie). This is a movie that will make you think about the tragedy of sin and foolish choices long after the credits roll. It depicts the confusion, anguish, and sense of betrayal that so many children experience when their families disintegrate and adults disappoint them. And yet hope springs in the story even as the plot darkens. After years of failing to make things work, Mud and Juniper find peace in a brief, but loving gaze across a short distance, where volumes are spoken before they finally go their separate ways. Mud’s manipulation and betrayal of the boys’ trust is redeemed in the end when he saves Ellis’ life not once, but twice. The violent storm of Ellis’ parents crumbling marriage calms to a drizzle, and we see him smile for the first time at the end of the movie. The viewer is left with a sense that in the midst of the curse of sin that rests on this world, hope is still present.

Mud reminded me of how awfully destructive sin is. It keeps people who love each other apart. It robs life of innocence and joy, leaving only bleakness and hopelessness. But redemption is available. The movie does not have many overt spiritual references, although the few subtle allusions are meaningful. There is no Savior offered, so don’t look too hard for Christian themes. The hopelessness of much of the plot is what I find thought-provoking. Just like There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, there are no real answers found in the world of men, only despair and meaninglessness. Only outside of us is there hope. Only in Christ is life more than a round trip from dust to dust, or in this case from mud to mud.

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