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.