Mcconaughey's Best Performance.
Directed by Jeff Nichols
There are so many movies out there in the world, and there is no way we could be touched by them all in a profound way. About 15% of all the movies I see deeply move something in me, 15% are trash, and the middle 70% does something in between – not necessarily a waste of my time, but also not a moving piece of cinema either. Mud, directed by Jeff Nichols, falls somewhere in my top 15% of movies. Nichols’s ability to tell stories honestly through a child’s eye, the complex arc of these dynamic characters, and the central theme felt like a hearty and personal lesson.
Mud is a little rough around the edges, living in an abandoned, suspended boat on an uninhabited island on the Mississippi river. Two prepubescent boys, Ellis and Neckbone, meet Mud one day as they realize someone has been living in “their” boat. Mud, who looks like he’s walked straight from the story world of survivor, is a mystical view of gritty masculinity. McConaughey’s fatherly role is self-assured but continuously challenged by his deep character needs and values. His inherent connection to the land is a recurring aspect that director Jeff Nichols creates in his characters; the location and set design are as necessitous to the story as the plot or characters are.
Mud and the boys kickstart the plot when Mud explains that he’s back in town searching for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who has had unfortunate abusive relationships with other men. Back in town, one day while Ellis and his mother are driving, the cops stop them to perform a search, questioning them, “Have you seen this man?” Cops hold up a picture of Mud, and a troubled Ellis dismisses it. A recurring shot of Neckbone and Ellis boating their way out to the island brings them to confront Mud about the search. Mud reveals that he killed a man – one of Juniper’s abusers. While the town spurs a hefty and suspenseful search, Ellis and Neckbone scrounge resources to help Mud escape with Juniper, the love of his life.
Ellis’s character’s honesty marks his innocence and unclouded ways of dealing with conflict. In his eyes, love is the most powerful binding force. But Ellis is not the only character learning to navigate the difficult waters of love. Each character’s personal journey contains different conflicts, experiences, and wounds that impede them from approaching situations with the same innocence Ellis has. Ellis goes to his wit’s end to help Mud and Juniper see their fairytale ending, and when he sees Juniper at a bar with another man, you can see the hurt and deep gut disappointment in his eyes. Mud’s story, in conjunction with his parents’ divorce and his budding interest in an older girl at school, teaches him the complex navigation of such strong emotions at this time in life.
Jeff Nichols explores the emotions that we all experience at this stage in our adolescence. Many adults disregard teenage love as cute or relatively shallow. However, these feelings are so strong, possibly stronger when these feelings aren’t clouded by practical considerations such as lifestyle or location – considerations that we must continually account as we age. Depictions of relationships are so impressionable, the lessons learned about the trials and tribulations of love during this time shape relationships in our future.
Mud decides to call it off with Juniper, and Ellis understandably feels taken advantage of, as his ultimate goal was not to help Mud, but to help Mud and Juniper. Ellis approaches Mud with a confrontational outburst, and even though Mud responds empathetically, Ellis frustratedly stomps off. Neckbone chases after Ellis when he suddenly falls into the creek, covered in black snakes. Mud responds immediately, examining his snakebite, scooping Ellis out of the creek, and loping to the boat while Ellis’s arms flail. This scene, despite the main focus of the rest of the plot being on romantic love, embodied true love. Mud’s reputation isn’t pristine around town, with many of the townspeople calling him a dangerous, selfish liar. But in this moment, Mud’s true character is revealed, and the tension is tender. Mud doesn’t even think twice about the fact that the entire town is plastered in posters of his face as he runs into the hospital, screaming for immediate help. His overwhelming and complete concern is this young boy he met only days ago. The shots of Neckbone staring at Mud as he fights to save his best friend make this scene’s message clear; actions speak louder than words.
Even though Mud embodies some form of toxic masculinity, I somehow can get behind him. Perhaps Mud reminds me of my own father. He might make mistakes, take advantage of the people who love him, and unfortunately, lie sometimes. This is something I can’t deny… but at the end of the day, his heart is willing to drop anything for people should they need him. Mud’s love for the boys who helped him, and his pursuit of questions that are morally right and wrong are an honest reflection of the questions we all have to face, especially with the current state of the world.