The One True American Story: ‘Mud’

By: Chris Dagonas

“Mud” is an enduring sort of film. It could have taken place in the 1870s just as easily as it has in the 2010s. Many critics have already compared it to Huckleberry Finn, and with good reason. It is set in the timeless backdrop of small-town Arkansas, along the banks of the Mississippi River. This is Mark Twain country through and through, and director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter) gives us ample references to a time and place gone by.

Matthew McConaughey keeps his shirt on (mostly)

Matthew McConaughey keeps his shirt on (mostly)

The plot is centred on two 14-year-old boys: Ellis (expertly portrayed by Tye Sheridan from Tree Of Life) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who find a boat high up in a tree on a deserted island. Naturally, they want to make a sort of clubhouse out of it, only to find fresh bread and canned food (and, of course, Penthouse magazines) inside. Someone is already living there.

That someone is none other than Mud (Matthew McConaughey), and to the boys, he is intriguing, the sort of older brother figure they never had. They hang out with him, help him get food, help him recover said boat-cum-clubhouse, and send notes to people in town for him. Then they discover that Mud has a dark past, and a good reason to be hanging around: a tempestuous romance with a beautiful woman named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

Reese Witherspoon as Juniper. What's up, girl?

Reese Witherspoon as Juniper. What’s up, girl?

For the rest of the film, Ellis and Neckbone are thrown into a whirlwind of grown-up situations they do not understand nor are prepared to handle. State Troopers, bounty hunters, squabbling parents, and volatile relationships all provide fast and hard lessons to our protagonists. Coming of age stories often have to walk a fine line between realistic childhood drama and high stakes for the viewers. No movie would ever be interesting if the biggest issue for the protagonist is getting a date to the big dance. “Mud” definitely has high stakes, some critics argue too high (more on that later) but one never feels that any of it is unrealistic or overwrought.

Ellis’ parents are going through some hard times. Nichols gives us a glimpse of this in an early scene that is filmed from the perspective of a confused 14-year-old. Not too much is revealed, but a certain tension lingers in the air. Ellis’ father (Ray McKinnon) seems to be a hard man, who works and lives on the banks of the Mississippi River, fishing and catching wildlife to sell to the restaurants and bars in town. While his relationship with his wife seems to be in a tailspin, his relationship with his son is more complex. There are moments of tenderness, interspersed with a lot of cold looks and tough lessons. We see little of Ellis’ mother (Sarah Paulson) until about midway through the film, when we begin to learn why the adults just can’t get along; Mom wants to move off the river and into town, while dad remains stuck to his traditional ways.

The banks of the mighty Mississippi

The banks of the mighty Mississippi

Those traditional ways of the South are also a key theme in “Mud”. Nichols makes sure that the scenes of wilderness along the river and on the deserted island are colourful and serene. The scenes in “town” (we never find out exactly which town) on the other hand, are grey, drab, and show a way of life that can hardly be called “Americana” (hard drinking and parking lot fighting, for example). But tradition is dying, we all know that. Fresh fish from the Mississippi can be bought at Wal-Mart for a fraction of the price. Ellis’ dad is on the wrong side of history, and he seems to be the only one that doesn’t realize it.

At its core, “Mud” is a movie about finding, keeping, and understanding love.  Our young men are idealists, as most young men are, and believe in love as an everlasting feeling that never changes, only deepens with time. Ellis is confused and angry with his parents for fighting and considering divorce, while at the same time embarking on a romance of his own. Mud and Juniper are frustrating, to Ellis (and especially to Neckbone) and sometimes to us as well.  Will they? Won’t they? Is he crazy? Is she loyal? Again, Nichols makes sure that, just as our protagonists would be, the viewer is confused and baffled by the actions of these two.

Neckbone (Left) and Ellis. Adults are crazy.

Neckbone (Left) and Ellis. Adults are crazy.

Back to those high stakes. The film culminates with a third act that seemed, to some critics, somewhat out of left field. To me, it was a logical ending point for much of the buildup along the way. Mud has made some enemies through his past actions, and those enemies are looking for him, and may do him harm if they find him.

If Mark Twain had known about dirt-bikes and SCUBA diving, perhaps Ellis and Neckbone might be as universally known as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Alas, they exist as continuations of dozens of coming-of-age archetypes, albeit ones that have more personality than most others. Much of the same can be said of the film overall. While “Mud” doesn’t break new ground, it certainly approaches an archetypal story from a unique angle, and is able to leave the viewer satisfied, if not somewhat hopeful, that things really can work out in the end.

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