If you’ve ever visited my website, you know I have an affinity for mud – primal ooze, earth mixed with water, prima materia, the basic stuff from which we spring. So I could hardly pass up a movie called Mud!
The title says it all. This story is born and raised in fertile Mississippi mud, as are all the characters. Ellis lives on a riverboat and his father catches catfish, a bottom-feeding fish sometimes called a mud cat; Neckbone’s uncle dives in the river looking for oysters to scoop up out of the mud; and the self-named Mud is an orphan, a half-feral child, one of the dregs of society, semi-rescued in youth by Ellis’s mysterious neighbor. The story itself is muddy, obscured by half-truths and fairy tale imaginings. It deals with the sordid messes adult humans make out of lust, jealousy, revenge, rage and romance.
Throughout it all, director and author Jeff Nichols never forgets the basic potential and fertility of mud, nor the way, it stubbornly clings, like love, to whatever it touches. The film is just as much a love story as it is about coming of age. In fact it seems to say that coming of age includes coming to understand the true nature of love as opposed to obsession or romance.
Mud’s and Ellis’s story run parallel to each other. Where Ellis is just entering his teens, Mud has been stuck there forever, which is why the boy recognizes and accept him as a kindred spirit. Both of them must learn to relinquish their ideas, assumptions and conjectures about the nature of love before they can grow up. Like Ellis, Mud has the sweet wild charm of an innocent man-child, though of course Mud’s life has not been lived innocently. He is guilty of all sorts of transgressions including murder, but somehow the purity of his obsession with Juniper has kept him essentially unsullied.
This is where the mud comes in – adulthood demands a sacrifice of innocence. Eyes must open to see a parent’s feet of clay; the statue must step down from her pedestal. Without mud, compassion and empathy have no place in which to take root. Without mud, life ceases to exist.
The story demands Ellis’s disillusionment and requires that he reject Mud, who represents Ellis’s hope that adulthood can indeed be lived with all one’s dreams intact. My only quibble with the film is that Ellis accuses Mud of falsehood when Mud has never lied to the boys. Both Juniper and Carl tell Ellis that Mud is a liar, but the audience never experiences this first hand. In fact the opposite is true. That’s what made me like this character so much in the first place. Ellis is angry with Mud, not for lying, but for still believing in the lie of romantic love. However, the boy’s mud-slinging and subsequent accident awaken Mud to the consequences of his actions. Only then can he finally give up Juniper.
We know Ellis will grow into manhood gracefully. Neckbone, the most pragmatic character in the story, is already there. He is wise beyond his years. Mud, the Huck Finn and Peter Pan of this story may never thrive, but free of his obsession with Juniper, he’s got a chance.
What Matthew McConaughey and Jeff Nichols have done so brilliantly is to give us a character both archetypal and real. Mud is the puer aeternus, the eternal youth. Who hasn’t wished to stay young forever to see the world with the heart and eyes of a child and the strength and wit of a man or woman? “Wild thing you make my heart sing.” Innocence is a blessed primal state of being. One could see it as enlightenment. Maybe those who give it up are too frightened of its immediacy to remain there. Isn’t this the very place to which we all long to return?
And yet if Mud is human, think what a wonderful mature man he could grow into by combining his intelligent heart, eye for detail, and skill at observation with an appreciation for consequence. Alternatively, consider the thin edge between Mud’s condition and madness; the likelihood of his rapid deterioration. Without the illusion of Juniper to keep him intact will he simply disintegrate like a golem deprived of his holy name?
Mud has all the hallmarks of a great film. It engages emotion, holds up a mirror, ponders the poignancy of the human condition, and leaves us wondering.