My name is Mud is a familiar cliché we all know. In the new Jeff Nichols’ film (“Take Shelter,” “Shotgun Stories”), Mud is Matthew McConaughey. Nichols has been quoted as saying the film is “as if Sam Peckinpah had directed a short story by Mark Twain.”
The quote fits, because this is a film about two boys living and having adventures on the Mississippi in Writer/Director Nichols’ home state of Arkansas. Small towns like Crockett’s Bluff and Dumas were used for location shooting. (Dewitt is the name on the town water tower). Tom Sawyer is Ellis, played by Tye Sheridan (“The Tree of Life.”) Ellis’ side-kick, Huckleberry Finn to his Tom, is Nick, aka Neckbone, played by Jacob Lofland in Lofland’s film debut.
Apart from McConaughey—who turns in another interesting performance in the tradition of his more recent roles in “Magic Mike,” “The Paper Boy,” “Killer Joe” and “The Lincoln Lawyer”—Reese Witherspoon portrays Juniper, the woman for whom Mud will do anything. Sam Shepard plays an ex-CIA assassin and river rat, the closest thing Mud has to a father. Joe Don Baker lends some gravitas as King, who comes to town to supervise a team of eight men out to murder Mud. Other fine performances are turned in by Sarah Paulson (television’s “American Horror Story”) as Ellis’ mom Mary Lee and Ray McKinnon as his dad. (“O, Brother, Where Art Thou?”, television’s “Deadwood”), as well as Michael Shannon as Nick’s Uncle Galen.
Shannon appeared in Nichols’ “Take Shelter” and has forged a career playing crazies in the Bruce Dern mold, including his role as John Givings in “Revolutionary Road,” (for which he was Oscar-nominated), crazed FBI agent Nelson Van Alden in “Boardwalk Empire,” and his current starring role in “The Iceman” as real life hit man Richard Kuklinski. Shannon—who got his start in theater in Chicago— has become a sort of good-luck charm in Jeff Nichols’ films.
This is a coming-of-age movie; Ellis and Nick are 14-year-olds. But it is also a parable about the nature of love and marriage, ethics and moral growth and change. Some original music was contributed by David Wingo ,but the key theme song for “Mud” is “Help Me, Rhonda” by the Beach Boys (“Help me, Rhonda. Help me get her out of my heart.”) As Nick tells Ellis, early on, “That’s his doin’ it song,” meaning that “Help Me, Rhonda” signals that his Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon)—who is raising the young boy who never knew either of his parents— has a woman in the bedroom and Ellis should steer clear. Galen later explains to the two teenage boys experiencing normal adolescent lust, “Help Me, Rhonda is about a guy who wanted to get a piece to get over a girl who dumped on him.”
This crass explanation of the Beach Boys classic tune ties in with the emerging feelings that Ellis has for an older classmate (May Pearl, played by Bonnie Sturdivant).
It also intersects with the marital problems Ellis’ parents are experiencing, and augments the romantic love story of Mud and Juniper. Ellis’ dad comments, “Marriage just don’t work for some people.” Concerning the undying romantic love that Ellis wants so badly to believe exists, his father (Ray McKinnon) says, “I don’t know about that any more.” His dad also tells him, “You can’t trust love, Ellis. If you’re not careful, it’ll up and run out on you. Women are tough. They’ll set you up for things.”
That thought is echoed by Sam Shepard’s character, Tom Blankenship, who, speaking of Juniper, says, “The trouble is, she don’t care about nobody but herself.” Tom thinks that Mud’s only chance is “to cut her loose,” saying, “Those two are set for failure.”
Despite these bleak views of eternal romance, Nick and Ellis are deeply involved in trying to help Mud reunite with Juniper, even though he is marooned on an island, hiding out there after killing a man in Texas who mistreated Juniper. They are helping Mud rebuild a cabin cruiser improbably stuck in a tree, left there by flooding. The boat not only has to be brought down from the tree, it needs a new motor and Mud also needs food and supplies while he struggles to restore it. Then—Mud tells the boys—he will collect Juniper with their help, and they will ride off in the sunset to live happily ever after. Unless the eight ruthless men collected by the shooting victim’s father (Joe Don Baker) and his brother, James (Michael Abbott, Jr.) find Mud first.
Along the way in this interesting and original film, we learn from Mud himself that, “I don’t traffic in the truth too often.” But we see that Mud can be a good guy. He risks his life to save Ellis after Ellis is bitten by a cottonmouth snake. And his true love for Juniper shines through all his actions, past, present and future—-if he has one; Juniper, too, seems to truly love Mud, but seems too weak to endure what running away with Mud (again) will mean in her life.
When Ellis tells Mud, “My dad says that you can’t count on women lovin’ you. You can’t trust ‘em,” Mud has a different point of view. The boy, deeply affected by the spectacle of watching his parents’ marriage disintegrate around him and also experiencing their riverboat home being dismantled (“It’s the law!”) has angrily confronted his father regarding the looming divorce, “You gave up on her, just like she gave up on you.” But, by film’s end, there is a feeling that the reality of the future will not be as bleak as Ellis initially feared.
Juniper’s inability to stay strong and committed to her true love (she doesn’t show up when the young boys attempt to collect her for the romantic rendezvous and subsequent planned get-away) is paralleled by Ellis’ father. Mary Lee says to her husband, “You’re a man who doesn’t have the strength to support his own life.” Could the same not be said of Juniper? The idea of a couple being set for failure and needing to cut someone you love loose isn’t confined to just Juniper and Mud in this intricately plotted tale, which Director Nichols also wrote.
The moral and ethical issues emerge when Ellis’ father finds out Ellis and Nick have stolen a boat motor from a salvage yard to deliver to Mud on the island. In an angry confrontation with his son, while Mary Ann looking on, he says of his wife, “She’s raising her a snake just like herself” Ellis, too, is angry at himself. He’s angry that Mud is using him and encouraging him to violate his family’s moral code. He yells at Mud, “You made me a thief!” But, it is Mud who tells him, (while relating the dramatic story of how he avenged Juniper’s brutal mistreatment at the hands of another man), “There are things you can get away with in this world and there are things you can’t.” Of one’s work ethic in life, in general, Ellis’ dad tells him, “I work you hard ‘cause life is work.”
In 1974, Jon Voight made a movie, “Conrack,” which reveled in the river. The recent “Beasts of the Southern Wild” also captured the special people who spend life in close proximity to the Mighty Mississippi. In this film, life on the river, (photographed beautifully by cinematographer Adam Stone), is a metaphor for a life of less nobility, a different kind of existence. Ellis exclaims at one point, “I ain’t no townie.”
There is far more going on in this film than just pretty shots of the river; contrast the true beauty of nature with Piggly Wiggly stores on Plastic Menu Avenue and signs along it reading “God Bless America.” Natural beauty is treated reverentially, even when it is dangerous. The townsfolk and life there seems trite, corrupt, less pure, by comparison.
If you’re thinking of taking in a truly worthy film that will hold your attention and provide much enjoyment and thought-provoking material, from a writer-director (Jeff Nichols) bound for greatness, the best closing line to sum up the experience of watching “Mud,” (with its expert ensemble cast), is from the film itself: “Enjoy this river. Enjoy it while you can.”