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.


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.


I Love This: Silver Linings Playbook

2hr 0min - Rated R - Comedy

Silver Linings Playbook

Director: David O. Russell – Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Jackie Weaver, Julia Stiles, Chris Tucker, John Ortiz, Anupam Kher, Shea Whigham

(You’ll love this film if you liked I Heart Huckabees, Up in the Air, Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)


Love, rage, patience, unfulfilled potential. Waiting, conflicting voices.

Old-fashioned Mother. Steadfast, supportive, the quiet soul, non-judging, lives for her boys. Only with her tacit consent could these men have evolved as they have. The dominant yet benign father, the do-good successful son, the dark horse held back by others’ spotlight.

Mentally ill. Strange. Unsound. Unbalanced and wrong in the head. Haunted. How often do the gods fill a human mold faultlesslty? How often do our thoughts run and run downward, off kilter, sometimes so distraught there seems no remedy?

Conflicted, un-fittable no matter how they try. White-knuckling for years, children with little souls learning to cope as life turns them into stunned adults.

Two sisters. The one who pushes and gets. The other gets taken.

Female/Male stereotypes wielded like steel batons: Woman harassed by stalking male; the slut everyone taunts but wants to have sex with; the emotionally shut, unintelligible father.  The scenes play out like mini tragicomedies, so familiar, pathetic and wrong and pedestrian. We see them played every day; we play them. Silver Linings Playbook reflects back to us. Why do we hurt others like this?

Tiffany’s too young to be a widow; she cries onto a stranger, wrapping herself futilely around his unyielding form. Patrick Solitano’s reaction is stony, incredulous. Rebuffed, she falls away and walks off, lonesome and tall, shoulders hunched, in her high heels.

Startling, Tiffany darts up to Pat on neighborhood jogs. She yells and pulls. She defies his attempts to cut her from his side; she braves his rejection. Perplexed by this unearned allegiance, he holds his wedding ring high and proud, symbol of safety, of happiness. The gold circle is a life-saver, keeping his precarious mind afloat and tying him to everything he wants and lost: his wife Nikki, job, home.

Once in the steam of an adulterous shower, Pat lost his mind to almost kill a man in jealous rage. He was sent to prison for eight months and when his parole sentence was over, his mother came and released him. He now lives in his childhood home, wrestling demons in the tiny attic. Boxed-up flotsam drifts around his bed as he tries to re-fasten his life. The task: he has to prove himself worthy of the wife he must return to.

Things are complicated. Nikki has a restraining order against Pat. But Tiffany is sister to Veronica, Nikki’s best friend. They cross paths, pass in orbit. Missives are smuggled in by an equally begrudging and willing Tiffany. Patrick writes Nikki a letter, to which she replies. Nikki’s letter promises, show me a sign. Show me that you are fixed. I need you to be no longer fat, no longer muddled and muffled and violent and unrealized. If you can be those things, I can love you, her letter says. Just like he hoped.

Tiffany can help Pat, yet is strained by the magnitude of her own heartache. She is a lost vessel, adrift in a sea of grief, of mis-fit, of rawness that she cannot disguise. We don’t know what she sees in Pat but it’s a doorway in a neighborhood of walls. With reckless yet determined trust, Tiffany offers him a chance to prove his goodness to Nikki by being a friend to her. She convinces him that he can show kindness by partnering her in a dance contest because that is what she asks and what she needs however inconvenient. However unreasonable.

They practice and walk through their private grieving, with parents who don’t know how to help them, in neighborhoods that cannot absorb them. They walk among their friends and families trying to re-fit the pieces that no longer fit or never fit. Patterns of pain and coping are played out, are blown open, sometimes even healed.

Does pain divvy itself up to the ugly and underpaid? Where are brains ribboned with fire born? You might say in the strangest of us, those few who we wish to remain behind white locked walls. Our consciousness recoils from pain, from poverty, from frailty. We’ll do much to cover it, we’ll pay millions of dollars to gloss it, to romance and polish it. Don’t get too sharp; don’t get too close. I’m normal I tell you!

We don’t want to believe that the ability to crack broods somewhere in all of us. There’s too much to lose. Yet we all lose, every day, minute by minute we live with loss and failure, with uncertainty. How many plans are unfulfilled? How many breaths are taken while we struggle, struggle, cope. We think we are losers. We climb towards being winners. Pretend. Cover, do up hair, cinch the belt, speak the rehearsed.

And the universe is laughing at this flimsy ploy. When we witness Tiffany’s aggression and anger, when we watch Patrick unravel, we know that this is us like we know the curve of our fingers, like we know the sound of our voice. We know that this is me, this is who I am when I think no one is watching. Ronnie, Pat’s best friend, reflects our knowing, hiding in his garage despondently shaking his head to Megadeath while he mentally chokes beneath the pressures of his success.

What a gift to look at a creation, a giant screen of pixels such as in this film “Silver Linings Playbook”, a film only loosely adapted from Matthew Quick’s acclaimed 2008 novel. To look and see down, down past skin.

Much of our lives are dominated by ploys to keep us from seeing. Most visual information is gilded surface; promising joy if we just believe in these silky, glossy fabrications.

That woman with the deep vee of pale cleavage, she’s available and yet untouchable. She is successful and yet needs you to complete her. That man with heroic shoulders and shocking blue eyes, his garage houses a sports car, he wants to take you places and he will get you. If you opened a popular magazine featuring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence decked out in their ball-gowns and tux, or rough with grime and scowls, their striking beauty would call out, would ask your eyes to light with admiration.

And that is all. We are discouraged from thought beyond that snapped moment. Advertisers, photographers, sellers want us to live in that moment and live for that moment of beauty, of admiration. Funny though how it is just a moment, simply a short space in time. Then the lights dim, the posing stops and the person walks across the room to get a drink of water, to call a friend, to add an errand to their list. They take a shower and paint sweeps down the drain, jeans are drawn on, socks searched for and pulled up. An eye is scratched. Worries crowd in and the day moves on in its thousands of other minutes that are the overwhelming bulk of life. Yes, Angelina Jolie cries. She butters toast, she changes diapers. Jennifer Lawrence looks fantastic in a bikini. But those hips and that chest house rushing blood and particles of air, that mind holds memories and dreams and fears like every little girl, like every young girl, like every woman, like every person. Beautiful and strange, celebrated and plain, cracked and healed and cracked again. Like all of us.

David O. Russel rocks for finding the means to portray such pathos in a way that we can accept. Tiffany challenges Patrick: Can you forgive yourself? I like that this film allowed me to glimpse my own frailty, my own strangeness, and yes, forgive.

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