Mud

What is a woman’s love?

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Matthew McConaugheyTye SheridanSam Shepard, and Reese Witherspoon.  

I thought this was going to be an adventure pirate film about kids stuck on an island, getting muddy as they have adventures. It’s true, I only scanned the synopsis. I thought Matthew and Reese were going to be a Hollywood version of the kid’s fun-loving parents.

Ha ha on me.

I guess that’s why Rotten Tomatoes gave this film 99%–there’s way more here than I imagined.

Now that I’ve actually read a bunch of reviews, I’ll tell you I agree with the many comparisons to Mark Twain’s Huck Fin, that kind of adventure, that childlike vision of the world, and that sort of South. An equal amount of people are talking about the upsurgence of Southern films like Beast of the Southern Wild and Jeff Nichols’s first two critically favored forays Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, as well as Winter’s Bone, which offers a sister in hero, environment and tone.

A lot of great discourse is out there about why these films are being made and the Southerners who are making them.  I add my view as a woman aware of the perspective and history surrounding me, which I think especially relevant to Mud.  That’s because Mud is a soliloquy on a man loving a woman.  The film riffs off of variations such as: What women are to men, where we get our stories, the nature of love, and fantasy versus reality.

Ellis and Neckbone, wonderfully played by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, are the boys whose adventures steer the film. Upon meeting them, it is immediately obvious that these are people of depth and sympathy. They are young, on the final cliff before hormones stretch them into men; however, we can already perceive facets of the men they will become.

The men of Mud are also complex creatures. At every twist there is more than meets the eye, there are quirks and nuances to these Arkansans that we discover only slowly, sometimes even when we’ve already written them off. Several share the limelight. There’s Ray McKinnon as Senior, Ellis’ bewildered and tender father, whose crisis catalyzes much of what unfolds. There’s Matthew McConaughey’s wild, charming and woeful soul, aptly called Mud. There’s Sam Shepard’s Tom Blankenship, a tight-lipped sentinel. And in a vital cameo, Michael Shannon plays Neck’s juvenile, partying uncle Galen.

The female characters are also painted with a careful and caring hand. Yet Ellis’ unhappy mother Mary Lee, played by Sarah Paulson, Reese Witherspoon’s haggard Juniper, and love interest May Pearl, played by Bonnie Sturdivant, are more difficult to see. They are paintings in the truest sense. Even as all three of them let their men down, their voices are silent. These are women are of little words, closed doors, walking away, silent waves, and unreadable kisses.

  Juniper

Alas, the women in Mud are mainly surface objects against which men and boys try to understand themselves. It’s the male faces we watch in anguish, their words and interpretations that we hear. Even as Ellis’ dad delivers his catch every day, as Mud builds bonfires to cleanse bad spirit, as Neck’s uncle woos women, or as Ellis recovers from a near lethal snake bite, they are pinned by big questions of the soul: How do I make this woman love me? How do I keep this woman with me? Lastly, the whopper: What is a woman’s love?

Throughout the story our hero, Ellis, only wants to find and understand love. He champions love because he recognizes that without it most of his world is lost. He loses his family, he loses his home.  This powerful motivation fuels every step we take in Mud, and each step pulls us into the vortex of events at their peak. A flood, a bitter divorce, the melancholy end of Riverboat life, a murder, a woman and a man on the run and menacing hunters who chase them.

Two large figures in Ellis’ life suffer a similar anguish, his cragged and gentle father, and the mysterious man on the beach, Mud.  Each is a man lost without his woman. Through this lens, women are seen as the key to a man’s happiness, a way in, a place a man can go to be brought joy or pain. In this way Mud is about men as Watchers, as outsiders to the feminine, to the opacity of the female experience.

   Mary Lee

Ellis’ loving mother is often in the grips of an indefinite sorrow . Ellis experiences her as the rooting force in his life, yet doesn’t comprehend her actions; At the same time he is unaware of the link between his unwillingness to talk with her and his ignorance.  Perhaps this deficiency has been left by his unwitting father, who has found it impossible to hold the wife he still wants.

Then there’s Juniper, a mystifying, blurred figure. The boys’ eyes follow her high-heeled gait, drawn to her orbit, rapt. She shows up in the local motel, but merely waits, smokes, watches herself be watched. Will she reveal herself a hero or unworthy? Is she faithful or self-serving? For all that we try, we are constantly left without answer. Even as he’s known her for most of his life, Mud watches the focus of his desire and dreams, always on the outside looking in, wondering, wanting, both a protector and a beggar.

Last we see the buxom, breezy May Pearl. Pinning his boyish hopes on winning her, Ellis comes out fists fighting, leaving strings of phone messages, following her into pack after high school pack until he learns the reality of his ambition. Females can hurt, and harm and burn. Watch out.

It is compelling to watch a lovesick and sweet youth fall for the high school queen, as Ellis falls for May Pearl. We, like Neckbone, are drawn to the unfolding of her double-cross. Yet, it would have been interesting to have a girl witness this fate for Ellis, her friend, her brother. Neckbone’s view is almost always in sync with Ellis’. But a girl’s observation would have added complexity, providing the audience with access into the world of May Pearl.  As it is, the teen queen is more of a foil than a character.

   May Pearl

Similarly, without a way to Juniper’s inner self, it might be easy to blame her for her circumstance. This is because when we are given no knowledge, we assume that there isn’t any. Ironically, this could not be farther from the truth. A richer story would have emerged if we were given a way to understand the reality that women don’t go to bars to randomly meet guys, do not look for abusers, and don’t get themselves into impossibly violent situations without an abundance of sad reasons. Despite reams of evidence to the contrary about motivations for her actions, without more depth, Juniper becomes a vessel for male—and our—judgment.

But because the men of Mud love these women, we feel a pull to love them. Even obscure, even unfathomable, we want Mary Lee, Juniper and May Pearl to be good. We want them to be loving so that our heroes can be happy and everyone can live happily ever after. Senior wants it; Ellis wants it, and Mud wants it, more than anything else in their lives at this time and place.

The question Mud poses is: Will anyone get what they hope for?

 Three dreamers

As far as Nichols delved into his story he achieved some wonderful answers. And some not. So while I often felt something missing, I was thoroughly entertained as well as touched. I highly recommend Mud, for as much the answers it gave as for the questions it left unasked and unsolved.

Writer’s Block, Writer’s Flood

You’ve got to be ready.

As a writer, you never know what’s going to hit you!

 Kaaaaaaa-boom!

You were minding your business, quietly writing padding peddling along. Then BOOM! an asteroid came and threw you off your trajectory. It could have been a wonderful asteroid like in my case the birth of my daughter, or it could be something awful like when my friend’s father died.

It could be something totally boring like the onset of just plain wooden block.

No matter how, it’s happened. You’ve been thrown off your path, the one that your fingers tapping on your keys kept you tied to, and now you’re floating in space. You are catapulted up and then down, landing with an “AHHHHRGH” flat on your butt. You look around and the world’s shifted. There’s no GPS out here. Even if you’ve been lost in this maze before, that is far from comforting. You remember how hard it is to find your way back. There’s no way to snap your fingers or click your heels. You’re stuck searching for any guidepost, a sign you can use to get back.

It has to be said that sometimes, when you’re lucky, the wandering is not sucky at all but another adventure! You’ve derailed onto another fulfilling or fun path. Bravo! At least when you’re not writing you’re doing something else you love.

I tried that, I spent over 5K of my own savings to go back to school to become an interior designer. However, once out I realized that having a young child and a husband who was also self-employed was not—very much not—conducive to building a design practice. I quickly realized my job choice, at least at this time of life, was not doable.  And, worse, going back to school pulled me even farther from writing than I’d been when my daughter was born.  Then, time moved on my girl was turning 4, and I saw the truth: I was so far gone that I had no idea how to find my way back.

you’ve come to the corner of…

  and 

But I’m not easily deterred. I set my vision far ahead and put on my proverbial hiking boots. First, I did one thing I do best: Read. I paged through book after book about people’s transformation, growth and writing. I was inspired and I was moved. But still no sign back. Then in December 2012, the stars aligned, I took the right medicine, and I found the book at my local library’s New Book Shelf. Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Each chapter I was transported closer and closer to my destination, until by the end of the book I found myself there again, this flowing threshold of creative possibility.

I was ready to write again, but darn if the whole world had changed. In the 5 years since typing my last period, there’d been a revolution in social media. It wasn’t going to be like the old days. Doing my diligence and trying to find writing gigs, there are a million blog jobs out there. I was overwhelmed and not a little confused. So, I decided to start simple with a little blog.

I started here reviewing Cheryl’s book and put my shoulder to the task, learning, studying, until after three faithful months of blogging SHAZAM! it hit me like another asteroid—the words, dreams, visions just started coming. Gushing. Flowing. All the while I had been hiking through the trees and all of a sudden I came to that gorgeous clearing ,the overlook where the sky opens before you and the horizon fills your eyes, and you want to cry “Hallelujah!”

  Fluttershy knows what I”m talking about.

So that’s the wonderful place my creative mind has been for the past two months. Writing in my cave, watching the dust bunnies pile up around me, trying to give my family enough time and, yes, missing my blog.

I don’t know about other writers, but I’ve found it very difficult, in fact terrifying, to try to do my creative work as well as this blog. Every time my mind has wandered to a blog piece, I’d jealously wrench it back to my book, unwilling to give one iota of creative energy to something else. I’m hyper-aware that block can rear up again.  I scan the trees for it every time I look up from a page, wary, belligerent. Stay away! I pray to the Muses, “Please let me finish my book!”

I’m so paranoid that I struggle with the superstition that even admitting this will somehow juju me with a malevolent, sapping spell.

And yet here I am writing my blog again. I’ve looked for sneaky ways to have my cake and eat it too, and I’m tip-toeing behind my book to write this. I pray that tomorrow, when I finish and publish this, I am rewarded and not turned into some creative pillar of salt. Ye of all faiths, pray for me too!

I want to keep up with you out there in social media land. I like our connection. Maybe if this one works, I can continue to sneak away from my book periodically, until I finish it. Finish it. I can’t wait to type those words at the end: FINI!

For now, Hello again. I’d love to hear from anyone who writes more than one project at once. I’d love to hear how you manage it.

Cheers,  bllu