Despite the ambiguity of its title, both literal and figurative, Mud is anything but ambiguous. Quite simply, Mud is old literature masquerading as cinema. But I don’t say this pejoratively. Mud appropriates everything we love and appreciate about classic literature, and in doing so, it speaks in a rather compelling and fresh way to foundational philosophical problems such as good and evil, the necessity and paradoxical knowability of truth, and indubitable love.
At the film’s core is Matthew McConaughey’s ‘Mud.’ As the film develops it is difficult to know which classic literary character Mud represents. Is he Don Quixote? Is he Falstaff? Is he Hamlet? Is he Jay Gatsby? Well, he is all those canonical characters and a little more. Mud is a revelation of a character. He is both the most honest man you may every see and the filthiest liar you will ever have the misfortune to meet. The film’s most compelling moment, when we learn who and what Mud actually is, occurs near the end when Mud daringly takes Ellis (who could easily be this film’s Huck Finn) to a medical clinic to receive treatment for what would otherwise be a fatal snakebite. The “snakebitten” metaphor appears earlier in the film when Mud explain that he was, in fact, bitten by a snake but saved rather miraculously by his distant, at times, extraterrestrial love interest, Juniper. Once the staff takes Ellis off camera to receive medical treatment, Mud stands in the lobby and looks at everyone around him. The camera cuts and pans around the rooms, showing the audience different figures in the waiting room. They are clean, crisp, and domesticated. Mud, however, is none of these things. He is wild, dirty, and utterly unfit for domestication, which is perhaps what the film attempts to say in its entirety. There are some people, some things, and some ideas (e.g. Mud’s love for Juniper) that are beyond the tightly confined borders of domestic acceptability. This is very much a film that explores how the seemingly undomesticated grapple with the domestic ideal.
Most of the film is set on the water, off the Mississippi River, in De Witt, Arkansas. Houses look like nothing more than poorly constructed, nevertheless nautical, government housing projects. Every time the children (Ellis and his foul-mouthed companion, Neckbone) venture into “town” it feels like a momentous trek to an unknown, hyper-urbanized wonderland even though this town is, at best, low to middle class Arkansas. For example, the center of commerce and socialization is the Piggly Wiggly. But compared to the river, compared to the water, compared to the world of Mud, we are lead to believe that it is Paris, London, or New York. And like great literature, this film is swelling, like a river with too much rain, with profound symbolism and classic iconography. There is never a moment in the film when we, the audience, are not asking questions and searching for answers. These are quite frankly the films I like and the ones I rarely get to see. Such films ask its audience to ask questions, to think and observe, but this film does so without appealing to the lowest common denominator. This film does not think we are stupid. It assumes its audience is smart; it assume its audience is paying attention; and for that reason everyone should see it.
There are so many striking images in the this film, but my favorite is Mud’s white shirt which he characterizes as his “protection.” Mud is, in effect, dressed in the same clothing throughout the film: white shirt, haggard jeans, and a pair of boots that when he walks leaves a ‘cross’ heal print. We are told that this heal-print effect is the product of nails that were driven into the boot’s heals. Like Mud, these nails leave an uncompromising, indelible “print” or trace wherever they go. He also calls the shirt his “suit of armor” and from a distance the shirt looks stainless even pristine. But the closer we and the boys get to Mud the more we realize that the shirt and pockets are frayed at the edges, dirt and pit stains are apparent as well. Like so much in Mud’s life, the shirt is an illusion: an illusion of purity, an illusion of safety. Yet it works, because he believes in it, and I suppose philosophically, that’s what the film wants us to believe. It does not matter how things are, as if we could ever objectively know that, it only matters how we are prepared to see things.
But the film is also critical of this philosophical position. Mud is, at times, a delightfully bumbling, sympathetic character, but he is also naive, juvenile and generally unlikeable (I want to say more about this, but I also do not want to spoil the movie). He indulges in a conventional, romantic master narrative--one that ends with he and Juniper together and happy--that is laughable even pathetic. Yet, the film suggests that as implausible as Mud’s disposition may be, it is preferable because it defies teleology. Despite Mud’s conventional, teleological assertions about his future with Juniper, we know (as he knows) that his fantasy is just that, a fantasy. Like Jay Gatsby, Mud’s dream “must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it” but unlike Gatsby, Mud seems to recognize “that it was [indeed] already behind him.” Again, unlike Gatsby, Mud’s dream may never have actually been in front of him. Mud simply exercises the traumatic drive of Lacanian psychoanalysis, which posits a perpetual return to the cite of the traumatic event without the misconception of a commodified recovery or reprieve (desire). This point is certainly difficult to make, because like the film’s title, we are left with nothing concrete or congealed, we are simply left with mud.