Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland
There’s only one good reason to see Mud — Matthew McConaughey’s performance as a primordial man with heart.
I will talk about the film’s story, but it’s not what kept me in my seat. That honor belongs solely to McConaughey.
Mud sports one of the best across-the-board collections of real men — fathers, uncles and sons — you’re likely to see in one movie. A father gets past his silent pain of failure to talk openly with his son; an uncle takes responsibility for his adoptive son seriously, with sensitivity; an old man reveals his personal history to an adolescent boy; and a crazy man called Mud provides an alternative role model — one who’s strayed far from the path of sane, rational decisions, and scorns it — for boys who yearn to understand feelings of love and manhood. Even the bad guys consist of a father and son; their blind loyalty plays as a violent contrast to the caring we see in the other men.
Unfortunately, Mud is a straightforward narrative that gets over-explained and filled in with scenes and dialogue anyone could’ve just as easily imagined – and been better off for if you had. Without McConaughey, who lifts the character of Mud to the mythic dimension of a monster, a Minotaur who could eat the children and doesn’t, the film falls flat.
Two young teenage boys, Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland), are good buddies who get a fair shake from the decent men in their lives, but little insight. The men care and they try. But they flounder, longing for a love that eludes them, and they’re lost without it. Their women pass them by, substantial but a mystery, out of reach.
Modern times are bringing change to the shacks along an Arkansas river, and fishing is over as a way of life. Neither of the boys’ families do well; Ellis’ mom sees it’s time to move into town and dad’s hanging onto the old ways, still peddling fish caught in the river. A divorce is in the offing. Neckbone’s guardian uncle dives for oysters, gathering girls and pearls while playing the guitar in his trailer for fun. The two boys, with time on their hands and girls on their minds, take a flatboat across the river to an island to claim a boat that’s been caught in a treetop after the last flood.
When they find the boat, they find Mud. What kind of wise guy is this wild-haired man with only a story to his name? He’s definitely intriguing. Mud captures and holds the center of this film with a providential task for the boys: bring the boat down from the tree.
The boys say okay, making up their own minds about what’s right and wrong for once, outside the bounds of parental oversight. As they get involved with Mud, each choice moves them forward. He lays down the question of choice over and over for them, helping the boys define themselves. While they know it’s risky, they’re drawn in.
Mud’s odd name conjures up earthly, primitive notions about the beginning of man. He’s a fatherless, motherless man who grew up on the river and left. Now he’s come back, waiting for the woman he loves who’s promised to meet him. He’s killed a man who did her wrong and is on the run. Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) is as contradictory as the desert tree of her namesake, with a dead trunk and limbs in bloom, reaching for heaven. She eventually turns up, tailed by a gang of bounty hunters hired to kill Mud.
The boys help Mud with food and supplies, and when they spot Juniper in town they tell Mud. Ellis mirrors Mud in his younger days, an idealistic kid with an eye for the perfect girl, a hankering for love and one foot already firm on the path of the outsider. A crisis involving Ellis and a cottonmouth snake brings Mud into town and into harm’s way. The bounty hunters close in. There’s a shotgun shootout on Ellis’ parents’ houseboat in which an old man (Sam Shepard) who raised Mud rises like Clint Eastwood and saves the day.
And so we wonder about the larger story behind the coming of a new day for a couple of teenage boys. Crossing the river is a metaphor often employed to describe breaking away from the shore of conventional rule, entering the labyrinth of choice that leads to the core of being – or not being. It takes extraordinary courage to challenge the small vision of opportunity when society is crashing down around you. Boys like Ellis and Neckbone meet their inner crisis of manhood in the form of Mud, a rangy outsider with only a gun and the shirt on his back who’s taken refuge on an island where love is strung up in a tree. In Crossing to Avalon, Jean Shinoda Bolen describes the search for the mystery that births and sustains life:
“Once we enter (the labyrinth) ordinary time and distance are immaterial, we are in the midst of a ritual and a journey where transformation is possible;
We do not know how far away or close we are to the center where meaning can be found until we are there;
The way back is not obvious and we have no way of knowing as we emerge how or when we will take the experience back into the world until we do.
To return to ordinary life, we must again travel the labyrinth to get out, which is also a complex journey for it involves integrating the experience into consciousness, which is what changes us.”
As I crossed the river with Ellis and Neckbone, I searched for a way to embrace McConaughey’s magnificent performance. In fitting with the slow story of societal failings, the turmoil of family difficulties and stereotypical uncertainties, I envisioned Mud as an unlikely Minotaur, as a mythic impersonation who was not sure whether he was beast or man, bull-headed or a man following his bliss.
I merged my voice with the man of Mud, the movie with an irresistible mythic image of love stuck in a tree.
“For the love of a woman I’m a crazy son of a bitch, a misfit, a minotaur who lies at the center of his own labyrinth. Am I Modern Man coming of age or a disappearing fisherman? Love of a woman is like a boat in a tree, to be brought down from its cradle and restored by boys who came into my labyrinth with a rope tied round their ankle. They’re looking for refuge in a society bound up in cynicism; fathers lost without a way to make a living and mothers placing bets on a paper-thin future. The boys help me lower the boat out of the tree into the river. They reckon I’m deserving of their help because the woman who leaves me loves me, and I love her. Together, the boys and me, we’re onto something else. Though I’ve killed the beast he lives on, and he’s coming to get me. I honestly don’t know if I’m dead or I’m dreamin’ as I float through water. The old man next to me in the boat, the father I never knew, says ‘you gotta see this,’ so I climb up on deck to see. Once the snake bites, the shotguns fire and the sun rises, I see what he sees. An endless horizon beckons too far into the future.”
So, for the love of a river that brings some things of value and some evil things, I laugh.
It’d be okay if you do too.