Mud Film Analysis Essay

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Mud (Matthew McConaughey)

What is the worst thing to tell a young teenage boy? To not trust women and be suspicious of love, or that women are to be worshiped and love conquers all? In Jeff Nichols’s third feature film Mud, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is told both extremes. Bitter about the breakdown of his marriage, Ellis’s father (Ray McKinnon) is one of the many older male characters living in the small community near the Mississippi River in Arkansas who tell Ellis not to fall in love because women are just no good. Then there is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), the fugitive that Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover hiding out on a small island in the river. Unlike all the other adult characters in the film, Mud is full of enthusiasm and hope, believing in the transcendent power of love and believing that all he needs to live happily ever after is to be reunited with his on-and-off girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

The Mississippi River setting and distinctively southern American coming-of-age narrative reveal how influential Mark Twain’s 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) is for Nichols. Even though Mud goes into thriller and even gangster genre territory, it fundamentally remains a film about childhood and the experiences of friendship, first love and entering the adult world by accepting responsibility. Ellis is an impressionable yet good-natured boy, attempting to make sense of the conflicting messages he gets from the adult characters. As he is increasingly drawn towards the charismatic and seemingly righteous Mud, he finds the events of own life being reflected in that of Mud’s to the extent that Mud becomes both a future projection of the man Ellis may become as well as a Christ-like figure.

Mud is something of an update of the 1961 British film Whistle Down the Wind (directed by Bryan Forbes from a 1959 novel by Mary Hayley Bell) where three children mistake a hidden fugitive for Jesus Christ. While Ellis does not literally believe Mud to be the Messiah, he does increasingly regard him as a mythical figure. A transient and outlaw figure who lives in a boat that was dumped in a tree after a flood, Mud is an enticing mystery to the impressionable Ellis, and to a lesser degree the far more cynical Neckbone. After being on the run and hiding in the wild, Mud looks suitably dirty and dishevelled, yet speaks with a disconcerting eloquence. He is a capable survivalist and yet places immense value in objects and symbols, facilitating one scene where as Mud McConaughey gets to remove his shirt for reasons that are essential to the narrative. McConaughey going topless in a film is nothing new, but no previous film that he has starred in so successful justifies the display of his physique by making it an essential part of his character’s psychological development.

The crucial aspect of Mud’s mythology is that it is self-generated and a product of both self-delusion and bravado. He is larger than life figure and looms large in Ellis’s world. Most importantly is that Ellis has fallen in love with a local girl and while the other men he knows are dismissive or even hostile to women, Mud’s declarations of love for Juniper are a revelation for Ellis. Ellis becomes Mud’s disciple, assisting him with his planned escape and mimicking his behaviour. Ellis learns of Mud’s violence toward men who have reportedly hurt Juniper and in turn Ellis begins to act violently toward men he believes are a threat to the girl he has fallen for. Unrealistic idealism soon becomes destructive.

Mud emerges as a false yet benign prophet that inadvertently sets Ellis up for a crisis of faith. After establishing a clear point of difference between Ellis’s dysfunctional home life and the idealised world expressed by Mud, the film becomes increasingly complicated as Ellis learns that not everything is as cut and dried as Mud had lead him to believe. A series of emotional and physical conflicts lead Ellis to learn that while women are not the enemy, nor are they idealised beings who only exist to redeem troubled men. It is an invaluable lesson that makes Mud an extremely sophisticated and progressive examination on how adolescent masculinity is defined by often-contradictory cultural attitudes towards femininity.

Mud may not quite achieve the psychological intensity of Nichols’s Take Shelter, but it is still a strong and complex portrayal of a man grappling with how he perceives the world and how that perception affects the people around him. In Take Shelter Curtis (played by Michael Shannon who also appears in Mud as Neckbone’s uncle Galen) has visions of apocalyptic storms while Mud is obsessed with symbolism. It is fitting that in a film where women are often described as bringing about the downfall of men, the snake is a reoccurring motif, evoking the Biblical story of Eve in the Garden of Eden. A mud pit filled with snakes near Mud’s hideout is frequently depicted, Mud has a snake tattoo and Mud claims that the purpose of snakes is to create fear. It is a rich and layered set of Biblical and psychoanalytic symbolism, designed to represent male anxiety at its most hysterical and alarmist.

Despite the slightly jarring intrusion towards the end of the film of a subplot and set of characters that feel like they belong in a different film, Mud is an impressive male coming-of-age story. McConaughey impresses once more in what is possibly his most complex role to date, Witherspoon displays a depth of character that audiences have not seen from her since her early performances in 1990s American independent films and Sheridan brings to the screen a youthful intensity that suggest a star on the rise. At the heart of it all is an old fashioned yet welcome message that love is a wonderful thing, even though it does not always work out. And real men do not hold women accountable for their woes.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

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This entry was posted on Thursday, June 13th, 2013 at 6:34 am and is filed under Film review. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Set around the Mississippi River and told from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old protagonist, director Jeff Nichols’ third feature film, Mud, taps into a romantic image of a rustic alpha male: the man in the forest with the gun, the antiestablishmentarian, the vagabond who sleeps in a different spot every night. Nichols’ modest and meditative coming of age drama then chips away at it, the fibre of this mythical man’s strength broken down through his relationship with other people.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) encounter the outlaw on an island, living in a small washed-up boat (very “up” — it’s metres above ground, jammed between trees) and his name is the film’s eponymous word. Matthew McConaughey, a fine choice to play a larger than life character whose simplistic mannerisms conceal inner complexities unraveled by changes of circumstance — especially given the actor’s current groove, riding the winds of a remarkable batch of career realigning films — is deep and soulful as Mud, a performance veneered with the kind of gritty masculinity easily mistaken for indifference or nonchalance.

Mud is on the run from the law, the crime he committed linked to a woman named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who is holed up in a shabby hotel and awaiting word on his location. Other, shadier forces are on the look-out for Mud, and Ellis acts as a carrier pigeon to pass messages between the compromised lovers. When Juniper asks what is motivating him to help them, the wide-eyed whipper snappers responds: “because ya’ll love each other.” But, Ellis’ father warns, “you can’t trust love.”

Audiences have recently been treated to a couple of great American films about men wrestling with emotions: Joe Carnahan’sThe Grey and Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. The former was under-appreciated because it’s packaged as a man versus wild B movie, which is the same reason it transcends multiplex mentality and emotionally challenges the kind of male characters it depicts, who would ordinarily not venture among latte-sipping art cinema crowds or willingly sit through two hours of something billed as an exploration of the human condition.

Mud is about the fragility of men, the craving to be loved — by a woman, by other men — and how easily that love is misplaced, taken away, cheated or lost. The kid may think it’s about ya-ll loving each other, but Eillis will discover Lady Love’s wand leaves lots of wishes to be desired, and many complications in the spells it conjures. If Mudwere a more conventionally-minded film about separated lovers who reunite in a state of confetti down the steps bliss it would have become twee and life-affirming in ways Nichols has taken pains to avoid.

A spray of emotions that burst out of Ellis like an exploding valve on a pressure cooker emphasise how much the breaking of idealism can hurt, how much the film is about a failure of the myth to match the man, and how such disappointment, viewed through a pair of young and impressionable eyes, can hurt so profoundly. Ellis scolds Mud for being a liar, a phony and a cheat, but he is really confronting himself, angered by his own naivety and unsettled by glimpses of adult life reflected back at him.

The imperfections of the boy’s own ideas begin to hurt, from the flaws of his surrogate father to his experimentation with young love. Men’s relationship with women, despite the film’s dearth of female characters — and irrespective of those who may claim the film should have represented women more “fairly” or more dominantly, and thus misunderstand Nichols’ intention, or simply cannot get their heads past a proportional numbers game — is an important part of Mud’s psychological essence.

Mud is a fine film: one of the year’s finest, despite an ending that errs precariously close to baking psychological confrontation onto drama as if resolving complex issues were a matter of physically pitting “good” and “evil” forces against each other. Perhaps an early splotch of action would have helped prepare audiences for the tonal shift, or perhaps the greatest measure of Nichols’ restraint can be gauged by the moments his approach most closely resembles conventional dramatic escalation.

It’s no coincidence — and nor is it a spoiler — that the song playing over the end credits is Help Me Rhonda (“get her out of my heart”). Reese Witherspoon, in “damaged goods” mode, neatly encapsulates the female ability to change a man’s destiny in ways he (or she) might not tolerate or understand.

Ellis’ father tells him the law will come and take their house down “plank by plank.” The reason? A messy divorce with his mother. Near the end of the film a simple shot depicting Ellis gazing at another girl, loaded with the knowledge of his vulnerabilities, is enough to suggest he has already prepared a transfer of his affections and is about to endeavour in another stint at early love almost certainly doomed to fail.

The Mississippi River, adored by cinematographer Adam Stone’s wandering lens (he also shot Nichols’ previous films, Take Shelterand Shotgun Stories) provides a headspace where Nichols is able to make a point that the same things that always stay with us (love, desire) are the same things constantly changing and evolving, and their imperfections are part of the reason they are beautiful.

“If I see a crack in the sidewalk, to me it’s more beautiful than any human being,” Val Kilmer said to a fuzzy-eyed, disoriented Bob Dylan in Larry Charles’ Masked and Anonymous.“A crack in the mud at the bottom of a sun dried dead lake, I count that more beautiful than any human being.”

In a sense those words fit mud — the bit down the bottom of the lake rarely seen and which seldom rises to the surface — and Mud, the character who is, at least initially, all surface, the significance of his name lying somewhere in his psyche, beneath streams of other people’s emotions. They are ultimately what undoes him: not feats of physical strength befitting Matthew McConaughey’s glistening bod, but the way other people react — not to his character, per se, but to the things they wish him to be.

Mud’s Australian theatrical release date: June 13, 2013. 

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