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What Makes ‘Mud’ a Conservative (and Great) Movie

The surprising themes of a film about an Arkansas fugitive
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“Mud,” now making the rounds of movie theaters in a limited release, was a hit at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Rotten Tomatoes says that 98% of 122 film critics have given it a thumbs-up.

Glory be. Who would have thought that a conservative movie could receive such an enthusiastic reception?

Skeptic that I am, I believe that’s because nobody but me realizes it’s a conservative movie. It does not touch on the political, and it doesn’t preach. The focus is kept on culture, and it communicates its politics in a very personal way, letting the script and acting (both excellent) make its points so effectively that the audience is unaware of the larger implications.

The Story

“Mud” is a coming-of-age story about two 14-year-old boys, Ellis and Neckbone, growing up in an Arkansas town on the Mississippi River.

Ellis is distraught because his parents are separating and plan on getting a divorce. The boys find refuge from the world on an island in the Mississippi, where they stumble upon a fugitive from the law who calls himself “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey). Mud is madly in love with beautiful Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who is supposed to meet him in their town. Mud’s crime is that he killed the man who impregnated Juniper and who threw her down the stairs to abort the baby. We know nothing else about the circumstances of that fight and why it resulted in the death.

The problem is a lynch mob organized by the victim’s father and other son. They are not legal bounty hunters. They plan to kill Mud in revenge, not bring him back to justice in Texas, where the murder took place. And they have paid off the local police to let them do it.

The two boys are drawn to Mud. Ellis especially, who is desperate to believe that love can exist and survive, even if it seems to have failed with his parents. They try to help Mud escape, and in the process learn some painful lessons about human love. But with teenage boys, hope springs eternal, even if it meets some detours.

Enough of the plot. I want you to see “Mud” and find out what happens on your own.

Why “Mud” is Conservative

First, the movie supports the ideal of fidelity in love and marriage.

Whether our characters achieve that ideal is not the point. Ellis believes that it is the goal, his father does too, and Mud would like to achieve it.

Second, this is that rare movie that treats poor Southern whites with respect. It does not glamorize them, but neither does it demonize them or sneer at them the way most movies do today. Mud, Ellis’s parents, and another key character are not perfect by any means, but they are essentially decent people trying to cope with hard circumstances. We see the complexity of motivations in each of them; there is not a one-dimensional character among them.

And third, men are treated with respect in this movie, unlike virtually all of daytime TV today and most contemporary movies. They may be foolishly idealistic about their relationships, but they do not beat up or degrade their women; they seek to protect and love them.

“Mud” may be a bit sappy in that we end up hoping for the best with each of our “sorta’ good guys”—Mud, Ellis’s parents, and the kids themselves, who at this point are just learning what adult life is about. But it is refreshing—and conservative in its own way, I would suggest—to end the movie experiencing hope rather than cynicism.



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