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.