Overall Rating: A+
“This river brings a lot of trash down. You gotta know what’s worth keeping and what’s worth letting go.”
Mud is a film without a genre. It is undeniably enchanting, but for reasons that are hard to place. It is a romance, thriller, and a drama all at once, without ever truly being any. It very loosely follows archetypes of coming of age, family issues drama, and the anti-hero film. It is a picture in its own spirit, with its own heart, carrying a fairly simple story with elegance that has become rarer and rarer with time.
Mud is the third installment into the catalogue of works by the talented Jeff Nichols, following Shotgun Stories, a violent passion film about two groups of half brothers who engage in a bitter rivalry caused by their differing roles in their common father’s life, and Take Shelter, a brilliant character piece about a blue collar man’s battle with his confused sense of reality. All three are very much reflexive of the creator. Nichols is an Arkansas native who worked his way to film school at the University of North Carolina. Each of these films, which he both wrote and directed, feature the common southern flavor that brings them to life. It is being said that Nichols is the filmmaking voice of the christian south, with Shotgun Stories and Mud taking place in Arkansas and Take Shelter in Ohio.
Religious undertones, and even motifs more closely relating to outright fantasy than to faith, are peppered throughout Mud and the rest of Nichols’s work. It would be too easy to paint Mud as a christ figure, which he is not. If we are going to turn this into a religious parable, Mud is probably Jacob. This Old Testament anti-hero struggled with his faith was was deceptive, like Mud, often deliberately using his loved ones. At the end of his epic tale, Jacob is crippled in wrestling God and becomes the patriarch of the twelve tribes of Israel. Mud is equally deceptive, or maybe he is. His degree of honesty is constantly a battle field; some characters trust him much more than others and as the audience we are never quite sure who is right. He begins a blessed life, growing up along the Arkansas River and discovering the love of his life at age ten. Jacob is born into the household of Isaac, son of Abraham, but still struggles with God and deviously tricks his father and brother for personal gain and to please his mother. Mud similarly deviates from righteousness in spite of his intentions, executing a murder in Texas to protect his true love, Juniper.
Juniper’s and Mud’s relationship appears to be one about loving the reach but fearing the grasp. Like Jay Gatsby eyeing the green light across the sound, Mud and Juniper enjoy their plans to reunite, take risks for each other’s benefit, and revel in their relationships with messenger boy Ellis, the protagonist of the story. But even Gatsby found that he wanted to much, and Juniper and Mud grow nervous and even a bit scornful when the time comes to ride off into the sunset.
Nichols’s story makes no effort to explain the supernatural nudges. How do Mud’s footsteps simply end along the beach? How does Mud disappear behind a bus from Juniper’s balcony view? Does his spiritually protective shirt, which appears to work against all odds, actually possess powers? Like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, it simply does not matter. This is a fairytale in the vain of Mark Twain. It makes no promise of material accuracy but also no suggestion of higher power. Simply, he just does appear at times, and Nichols let’s us even forget that this may be an issue. The camera movements in the story emphasize perspective, so it is heavily suggested by the cinematography that the audience keep in mind that the camera is not God’s all seeing eye; it has an embodiment of sorts. It is constantly showing perspective, generally the boys’, such as gazing upward to the misplaced boat. It also is virtually never stationary, like the characters. As Mud delivers any of his several monologues in the picture he is active, not standing and preaching. The camera reflects this business by following the man at work. While he uses bold phrases to make vast statements about his life and love, what he is physically doing seems to be more important.
Ellis, a fourteen year old from the same area as Mud, is stranded between his frivolous youth and a less welcoming maturity. He and a buddy (What kind of name is Neckbone anyway) travel along the Arkansas river in Neck’s rickety river boat, creating an even greater resemblance to Tom and Huck’s wooden raft of Twain’s stories, when they discover Mud hiding out in wait on a sandy island. Mud is also stranded, not by his lack of acceptance in adolescence or his parent’s disintegrating marriage like Ellis is, but literally stranded on an island. Mud needs help, he wants to rebuild a ship in order to meet up with Juniper and escape together along the river. Ellis has a hole to fill, and Mud’s transparency and righteous motivation is just the sort of thing he is drawn to. Love is the major theme explored in Mud, and it is stunning how triumphantly Nichols is willing to build it, and how cavalier he is watching it end. The two unfulfilled relationships in the story are those between Mud and Juniper, which drives Mud to extreme violence in spite of Juniper’s apparent lack of interest, and Ellis and an older girl from the high school named May Pearl, which starts with Ellis committing sporadic violence and is tried by his difficulty to read May Pearl. These two men see a lot in of themselves in each other whether they know it or not, and that is the fuel for their relationship. When this bond seems to finally tip into too much one sidedness, Mud displays ultimate acts of gratitude leading to a spiraling thrill of an end.
Mud is not a plot driven movie, although the plot is challenging and engaging. It is a movie that demonstrates its merritts through character and flavor. McConaughey’s Mud is seemingly the introverted remains of some of the star’s more glamorous characters. He is a romantic, but lack’s trust. He is vulnerable, but impossible to judge. Mud may as well be a ghost, a figment of Neckbone and Ellis’s pessimistic fantasy of growing up for most of the film. He speaks with complete confidence and purity about his intentions for Juniper, but cannot manage to make sacrifices for her that he is willing to make for the boys he has known only a matter of days. Ellis, played by the talented young star Tye Sheridan, likes to throw the first punch, but always seems to march away from real problems. Maybe this is because he recognizes that they may not be real problems after all. Ellis’s maturity level paired with his childish views of those around him is his defining trait, aside from he and Mud’s shared romanticism.
Location, as it can be seem in many films, serves as one of the most significant characters in Mud. Viewed with an eye for culture more than story, it is an examination of lower class American life along the river. The most alluring shots are from the boys’ perspective as they glide across the river to more open water, both by day and by night. The houseboat community exists only because of this river. Ellis’s father is a fisherman and Neckbone’s uncle and caregiver dives into the river to obtain lost goods. With no river there would be no story.
The delightful mood that Mud leaves behind is the product of loveable, if imperfect, writing and a charming cast of characters. In the end, without giving much away, Ellis loses his little battle, but did he really lose or was it a blessing in disguise? Same goes for Mud, who failed in one respect but seems to be left better off because of it. That is if you take the ending at face value. Nichols leaves quite a bit up to the imagination, failing to explain much of it. Actually, this multidimensional conclusion seems to only amplify his themes for throughout the film: biblical reference, unnatural fairytale elements, and time ambiguity. Upon my first viewing I did not really think about the time ambiguity, but upon another viewing and some reflection it seems clear that the audience is not supposed to recognize that the story would also work if the chronology were changes or more clearly and consequently how much time it covers. Nichols’s craft is on full display as one of the medium’s great young storytellers, forcing us at one to think, and simply sit back and enjoy.