3 Stars Troubling
A story of life on the Mississippi is well known in American literature. As we traveled with Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and the runaway slave Jim, we experienced both the danger and the excitement of an adventure few young men could have experienced. This is also true of Jeff Nicholas’ tale Mud. Telling the story of two young teens whose families live off the fish and clams of the river’s waters, they come upon a fugitive living on a forbidden island in a forsaken boat. And as in the earlier adventure, the danger is real as these two boys are forever changed.
With Nicholas as both director and screenwriter, the cinematic journey is told with visual artistry that weaves together the river’s currents with the muddy shore and fearful superstitions with romantic myth. The two boys are Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Having an unusual amount of freedom which takes them beyond their young teen experience, both boys are fascinated when a cabin cruiser is discovered lodged in the trees of an island Ellis’ father has forbidden him to visit. This rule is for his own protection, not only from the currents of the river but also from the venom of the cottonmouths that slither in the island’s stagnant pools.
This is only the beginning of the adventure. They discover that the boat they want to make their own already has a resident. As if appearing from the mist, they meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey). They do not realize at first that he is running from the law, but they find his superstitious beliefs as expressed by the crosses in the heels of his boots and his specially protective shirt fascinating. When he asks the boys for help in providing him with food, Ellis agrees in spite of Neckbone’s objections. Befriending Mud as Tom and Huck had befriended Jim is the center of the tale.
Also involved in the story are Ellis’ father Senior (Ray McKinnon) and mother Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson), as well as Mud’s adopted father Tom Blankenship (Sam Shephard). Along with these characters is the romantic interest in this river tale, the beautiful Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). The complex relationship that Mud and Juniper have is not only central to the reason Mud is in hiding but also provides a backdrop for Ellis’ adolescent crush on the tempting and teasing Mae Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant).
The moral lessons of the film lack any point of true resolution and there are no characters that exhibit wisdom or compassion. The behaviors of young and old are constantly self-serving with a clear hope for but lack of true love. This lack of morality or concern for others results in a story with confused messages that are unresolved in its conclusions. Although evil is defeated in a final battle as we would expect of such a tale, it is not clear that the battle between good and evil was understood or in any way changed the boys or Mud in a positive way. It is this final confusion that leaves us wondering in what way this engaging but directionless tale can enrich our lives.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. When boys are in their early teens, they can be easily confused by the behaviors of those who are supposed to be their parents and guardians. How do you think Neckbone’s uncle will impact the sexual lives of both Neckbone and Ellis? How do you think Ellis’ parents’ dissatisfaction will impact them about their view of the meaning of marriage? Why do you answer as you do?
2. The dangerous game that Juniper plays with Mud’s devotion is seen even after he has taken on a life devoted to protect her and avenge her honor. Why do you think she would choose such behaviors? Is she evil in setting up men for Mud to punish and even kill? What basis is there for your answer?
3. When no one in the film is healthy or moral, the lack of a clear good is offset by an atrocious example of evil. Do you believe the world is reflected more by the characters in this film or by people who live lives of honesty and love? Why do you answer as you do?