Love, Blame, and Hope in the movie Mud

The other night, we watched the 2012 movie Mud with Matthew McConaughy and Reese Witherspoon

My husband and I both enjoyed it immensely, both for its skillful artistry and for its desire to entertain. At no point were we whacked over the head with messages, symbolism, or art (none of that, "Lookit me artist the heck out of this fillum!" stuff that gets so tiresome in so many thoughtful movies). It certainly could have: it has heavy with astonishing imagery: a boat in a tree!  A floating house! A pool full of black snakes!  A string of pearls!  A diver who needs more light! While no second of dialogue was wasted and no scene was framed carelessly, the story worked fine on its own, and earned the viewer's interest with every moment. I've never seen a movie with a more specific, thorough sense of place. 

Since I am no good at talking about plots without giving too much away, I'll just ask you to read with caution. I think the movie would be enjoyable even to viewers who already know what is going to happen. There are plot twists and suspense, but the dramatic turns do not lose anything by being predictable. So, you've been warned.

At first I thought the movie was mainly about fathers and sons, and what happens when fathers are gone, or they fail. We have the relationship between the boy Ellis and his dad; between Neckbone and his no-good but not-so-bad uncle; between Mud and his almost-dad, the retired sharpshooter. We even see a moment of true grief as the sleazy bounty hunter chief learns of the death of his sleazy bounty hunter son. It's a dominating theme: what is a father supposed to teach his son? What does a son owe to his father? Is it even possible for the world to work well when these relationships go bad? And whose fault is it when a father can't give his son what he doesn't have?

I wondered whether certain crowds would be up in arms at the way the movie portrays women. All of them are faithless in one way or another, and the things they choose to do cut boys and men to the heart: Ellis' mom leaves, even though she knows it will bring about the literal, board-by-board destruction of the only world her son and husband love; Juniper finally goes too far, turning to a cheap cowboy for company instead of returning to the man who's sacrificed his life for her; and even Ellis' "girlfriend" May Pearl betrays him with smiling, careless cruelty. It seems that this is what women do: they leave, they scorn, they inflict pain, and they just don't care.

But then I thought about what they ought to do, in the situations that the men put them in. There is a lot unspoken in the movie, but a careful watching will show that the men are far from innocent victims. When Ellis' dad snaps a newspaper in front of his face, refusing to talk to his wife, we see that this is how he always deals with her, and with everything. When Juniper doesn't fly into the arms of Mud, it's partly because of her own weakness, but partly because she knows that he's not the protector he imagines himself to be. There is history -- always, history -- and it's never clear that there is one victim and one villain. Everyone's guilty, and everyone wants to pretend that things are clear-cut, but they are not.

Again: this is what I liked about the movie. It wasn't about what is wrong with women, or what is wrong with men. It was more about how difficult love is, and how little it helps when we lie to ourselves. It was a sorrowful movie, but not a depressing one; and it left lots of room for at least some of the characters to learn from their suffering and to forgive the people who failed them. Yes, the snakes that have been waiting will get you in the end. No, you will not die. But don't let yourself get bitten again -- unless it's for someone you love. And around it goes, and the sun keeps shining off the open waters ahead.

The casting is imaginative and flawless, with the exception of Reese Witherspoon, who doesn't bring much besides pretty eyes to what could have been a fascinating role. We were delighted to see Matthew McConaughy using his formidable talent again, after his haitus in silly chick flick land; and we'll be adding director Jeff Nichols' other recent movies to our queue. 

Have you seen the movie? What did you think?