Amadeus, Arkansas, bildungsroman, Cliff Martinez, David Wingo, Drive, Huckleberry Finn, Jacob Lofland, Jeff Nichols, Mark Twain, Matthew McConaughey, Michael Shannon, Mozart, Mud, Ray McKinnon, Reese Witherspoon, Salieri, Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Terrence Malick, Tye Sheridan
While not necessarily a requisite shot, I have to imagine one would be hard pressed to find a movie scene set on a river, lake or some body of water that doesn’t utilize the tactic of filming the water from an aerial perspective perpendicular to the water level and then slowly, in the direction the vessel is moving, bring the camera up to meet the horizon its sailors are gazing into. It’s a cool effect – the combination of the camera sliding up towards a 180 degree angle and the forward push of the boat as the water recedes creates a genuine sense of the weak-kneed, uneasy momentum boat travel can induce. Sure enough, the riverlife-set Mud employs this shot within the movie’s first 10 minutes as two seemingly intrepid Arkansas boys embark on an unknown journey with an implied degree of danger that the director, Jeff Nichols, allows his camera to detail while the dialogue takes a back seat.
What the two lads are in search of, and quickly find, is the head scratching sight of an old boat resting amongst the tree branches of an out of the way, forgotten island. The phenomenon is quickly explained by one of the boys as a remnant of the last great flood their region had seen, and though that is at once a plausible and most likely correct explanation, our brains (or at least mine) remain so rationally hard-wired that the image of a boat tucked away in the upper reaches of a wooded area provokes a wonderfully surreal sensation that sets the tone for much of what follows, which does so in short order. After a cursory investigation of the boat, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) discovers recently purchased groceries and still-muddy bootprints along the wall, consistent with the reclining position a man might be able to achieve in the confined cabin space, and discerns they’re not the only ones who know about the vessel. Before the boys can reach their skimmer and head back, however, they come into direct contact with the boat’s squatter (Matthew McConaughey) – a burly, unkempt, questionably tattooed man with the name, eventually divulged to the boys, of Mud. The three chat uneasily at first – the boys are rightfully hesitant in the presence of a very real potential danger, though it’s less surprising a grown man who looks the way he does and is drawn to an abandoned boat in a tree is willing to divulge little to people he does not know. Mud leaves the boys with a request for food, if possible, under the tentative understanding the gesture and resulting provisions might be exchange enough for ownership of the boat.
While Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) is the more rational and safety-minded of the boys, Ellis is immediately intrigued by the notion of a grown man who is dependent on him. Both boys have imperfect home lives: Neckbone lives with his uncle, a hilarious Michael Shannon who dives for pearls and is a bit of a low-rent lothario, while Ellis realizes his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are drifting apart as his father’s river livelihood and lifestyle leave Ellis’ mother desperate for a mainland life of greater respectability. Sensing the chance to learn something from a man who he’ll be able to view with more objective eyes than his father, and most likely entranced by an opportunity to escape his now tumultuous home life, Ellis is on board for whatever this mystery man has in store.
The attention to familial ties and parental figures is extended even further when Mud, having been again visited by the boys and successfully enlisted their aid in his spiritual rehabilitation, encourages them to approach a man for materials and guidance. Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), Ellis’ isolated, presumed curmudgeonly neighbor across the bank, agrees to visit with the enigmatic Mud when Ellis drops the name while seeking him out one evening. “You Mud’s daddy?” Neckbone inquires during one of their trips, which Tom replies to in the negative, explaining Mud’s origins are as foreign to him as it is to the boys. Tom, after no doubt spoiling Mud’s plan by equipping him with nothing more than a tongue-lashing, encourages the boys to spend no more time with Mud. Like with a true father figure, Tom’s advice has the opposite effect on the boys, making their (though primarily Ellis’) curiosity even more heightened. Toss in the fact that Mud’s reason for his current predicament, though possibly apocryphal given his questionable moral fiber, is explained as one borne of love and commitment, the kind of literary pledges of devotion that Ellis, now more than ever, needs to know really do exist.
Mud’s story, which is lent credence by Tom’s belief in it, places him as a fugitive from police and worse after having murdered a man in San Antonio for causing his star-crossed childhood sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), unimaginable physical and emotional pain. Through testimony offered by Mud, Tom and Juniper herself (staying in town, hesitant for hers and Mud’s planned rendezvous) a relationship of primal desire and mercurial tendencies is painted for the boys to see as they choose. A cynic might see a toxic, co-dependent partnership which is no good for either participant. In his current position, however, Ellis is more than willing to believe in a love that transcends earthly hardships.
The remainder of the plot is rather straight-forward. Visits to and fro Mud’s wilderness bivouac progress with supplying parts for the boat, a note and a message for Juniper, and, most importantly, pieces of emotional honesty and personal history are exchanged: the most meaningful form of currency between boys and men, down and out.
There is a lot to chew on from an analytical perspective in this one. Certainly the boat’s reconstruction can parallel that of the relationship erected between Mud and the boys, primarily Ellis, as well as signifying the rebuilding of his own empty existence. I haven’t read Huckleberry Finn since High School, so I am in no position to try and in any way make an accurate or even representative comparison between the two, but young Southern boys, men on society’s outskirts, river travel – these elements I’m thinking are not coincidental. And much in the way a great bildungsroman novel charts the emotional progress of a young character does Mud give the audience a thorough account of the education Ellis receives in only a short number of days. Familial strife, broken hearts, economic disparity, the haves and the have-nots – all these topics are explored deeply, and just as the black eye Ellis brutally receives is mostly healed by the film’s climax, it’s easy to assume his soul has begun its natural cycle of regeneration as well.
Beyond the overt references to Twain or any other Southern literature which may have been by design, what I took away during certain moments are the gloriously affirming connections to other movies. David Wingo’s Southern tinged score is elegant and moody, but there are times when a movement or a specific piece of score aren’t used but more of a tone, not unlike the cues by Cliff Martinez in Drive. When what is trying to be conveyed is primarily contemplative, when someone feels something first and on a time delay tries to work through it mentally, these simple, ambient notes equip the scene with a pathos full of both longing and contentment – desperately wishing for a different situation but willing to adopt the necessary stiff-upper-lip countenance to live in reality. Where a novel can only tell what a character thinks or feels, film can, and does, show. I think of Salieri, in Amadeus, painfully working through a Mozart composition in his head; forcing himself to know and feel a genius he can never generate within while the sublime orchestration contradicts his panicked expression. Or I think of how Winding Refn’s Driver carries home Irene’s son, any exposition rendered meaningless since Martinez illuminates the scene with a shimmering, haunting tune – their day together was special. In the world of Mud, where words are already carefully considered, these beats of poignancy constantly revitalize the movie’s atmosphere and remind us we’re watching the lives of fleshed out, thought-through characters, not thin sketches or crude caricatures.
In addition to musical cues, there are a couple of times when these lost-in-time shots of Michael Shannon appear, pearl diving, wearing a neo-Medieval Cousteau-ian helmet with dual lights along the sides as he peers both into the riverbed and upward to his boat. Maybe it’s the presence of Sheridan and Shepard that I think of Terrence Malick, but it’s hard not to admire the obvious appreciation the director has for a great visual image. Not to mention the Malickian themes of how out of place people can seem when they introduce modern mechanics into the natural order of the world, a fact Mud and its river-land setting consistently reiterate.
Inevitably, what one is going to take away from Mud is the desire to contextualize the relationships in their lives. That sounds like a heavy load for a Matthew McConaughey movie to bestow, and it is. But then again, the script gives us a parentless wanderer who is blindly, violently lovesick; a man whose personal loss would have debilitated weaker specimens; a loving couple who face the bitter reality of drifting apart while remaining ultimately sound, honorable people; an Uncle faced with the task of acknowledging his genetic limitations in demanding respect but needing to shepherd along his kin anyways – fertile ground for post-viewing introspection. As a paperback, Mud would not be out of place in an American Lit class, and for good reason. It realistically offers up portraits of the myriad ways we love one another – how losses and hardships can make that love intolerable, but also how impossibly gorgeous the world can seem when viewed through that singular, amorous lens.
The shot introduced in those first 10 minutes is recreated during the course of the movie, though split into two parts. There is an instance where the camera glides along as the water whips by underneath and just as it appears it will pull up and reveal the horizon, a new scene is cut to. Never fear, however, because that horizon is eventually arrived at – magnificent and open ended, a vision imbued with the kind of world-conquering zeal that bubbles up when your eyes scan over the last words of a good novel’s final page: “The End”.