Mud is a mystery, but the mystery isn’t so much who the man called “Mud” really is or what Mud is doing hiding on that island in the middle of the Mississippi River. The mystery is why love is so hard, why relationships are prone to splinter, and whether or not there’s any reason try loving at all.

Mud is a story about a boy in the space between childhood and adulthood trying to figure out where he fits in the world. Mud is a story about people who are neither committed nor broken up. Mud is about houseboats and about using moving rivers as state lines and about superstitions, legends, and other ways the fantastic mingles with the everyday. Mud is a mystery, a thriller, a romance, and a coming-of-age story all at once.

Mud is about being mixed up, and it is as good a movie as I’ve seen in a while. It is richly charactered and narratively engaging, more like settling down with a cup of decaf and a short story in the evening than like hammering down fistfuls of popcorn in a megaplex watching superheroic explosions on a summer afternoon.

Most admirably, Mud is deeply sunk into a particular place and people. Most blockbusters seem to take place in a completely fictional world where relationships between people and between objects abide by different rules than in real life. Mud feels real. Writer/director Jeff Nichols tells stories rooted in his native Arkansas. He displays a knowledge and love of his setting that greatly enhances the stakes of his stories. Go see Mud, and also check out Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories to see what it looks like when a filmmaker is true to a real community. We serve an incarnational God. Celebrate incarnational stories.

There are real questions behind the movies Jeff Nichols makes. Shotgun Stories asks questions about how we can or can’t break cycles of violence that have ruled our families for generations. Take Shelter questions our ideas of community, what we owe each other, and how we ought respond to a community member in crisis. Mud, as I mentioned earlier, questions romantic love. The movie considers the fact that so many relationships fail. It takes seriously the fall-out of those failures. The movie spreads blame like a pad of butter on a piece of toast. It searches for a way forward.

If we were all as devoted to our places and people as Jeff Nichols seems to be, I wonder if we wouldn’t be able to figure out more answers to those questions in our lives. I’m grateful for Nichols films because they make me want to burrow in to a community. I’m so disconnected now from the place where I was born and from every place I’ve lived since then, I question whether it’s possible for me to be as rooted as Nichols’ films. I’m not sure one can simply choose a community in which to truly dwell, but at this point, I’m going to have to. I haven’t given myself any other choice.

And Mud and Nichols’ other films give me hope, because they show me that redemption is possible in every broken situation. Though it’s a messy, or perhaps muddy, there is hope. Blessedly, it is possible for the waters to clear.