Best of Netflix: “Mud” (2012)

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Some of the best films out there are the ones you just can’t watch casually. They are almost a task to watch because of their gravity, and when you reach the end, they weigh heavily on you. This is because their emotional impact, even if felt immediately, is often hard to comprehend in simpler terms. Think Schindler’s List or Cider House Rules.

Mud (2012) is one such film, and though it is deserving of its critical acclaim, it deserved and still deserves a lot more attention than it received, particularly because it’s on Netflix right now and you probably haven’t seen it!

Mud is a rural American drama starring Matthew McConaughey. Our leading man plays a drifter wanted for murder who is hiding out on an island in the Arkansas River in (you guessed it!) Arkansas. The protagonist and main character, however, is a 14-year-old boy named Ellis who lives on the river. His dad is a fisherman and his parents’ relationship is on the verge of collapse. This means his parents would separate, the family would lose their house on the water, and Ellis would lose the only life he has ever known.

Ellis and his best friend Neckbone happen upon Mud’s hideout randomly one day during the unraveling of Ellis’ home life. The drifter enlists their help to reunite with his long lost love and make his epic getaway in a beat up old boat washed ashore on his island. Mud’s mystery is enhanced by his inexplicable ability to move about silently and disappear with ease. You wonder for awhile whether or not he is indeed some kind of ghost or figment of Ellis’ imagination, but as it turns out, he’s plenty real.

He just isn’t what he seems.

Mud professes love for a girl named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and tells the boys that the only reason he’s sticking around is for her. Everything he’s ever done is for her. He’s loved her his whole life and devoted all of this thoughts to being with her. After he meets up with her in a few days — an arrangement made possible only with Ellis and Neckbone’s help — he plans to make his getaway by repairing the broken old boat (also with the boys’ help) and sail far away. Be he cannot, under any circumstances, show his face in town. There are even police road blocks looking for him. He is truly a wanted man, and even though that truth is literally staring Ellis in the face at times, the boy comes to idolize Mud as a kind of chivalric hero embodying all sorts of ideals regarding love, faithfulness, honor, and dignity.

All Mud really admits to is “being on the run”, but over time we come to find out that he might have murdered someone, and though the circumstances are never made 100% clear, it is murder nonetheless. Several people connected to Mud warn Ellis to stay away, who time and again Ellis refuses to give up on the drifter. Eventually he’s the only one that believes in Mud. And though Mud appears heartfelt and earnest every time we see him, we are forced to wonder: is he just manipulating Ellis? Is his end game an evil one of lies? Or is he every bit the hero Ellis assumes him to be? Maybe more realistically he falls somewhere in between? Will we ever know for sure?

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The story could have been simplified into your generic coming-of-age tale, with the harsh realities of life sort of obliterating the hopeful naivete of this young boy with some dangerous older man being the agent of change. The story could have glancingly approached how teenagers handle the divorce of their parents by making Ellis angry, sad, or both, without trying for anything more complex. But the wonderful thing about Mud is that it interweaves home life struggles with a much richer story about the battle between Good and Evil within the heart of a boy, a battle personified by the character of Mud.

The fragility of Ellis’ home life has a much greater — and subtler — impact on his psyche than you might expect. His whole world is crumbling and even though he feels it, he doesn’t fully understand or realize it. His innocence is waning and he resents his mother as being the impetus of the impending change. He can’t grasp the greater subtleties of marriage or the realities of love. Then Mud drifts into his life, embodying every belief he already has about life and love and loyalty. We, as the viewer, hope and pray that Mud will follow through and live up to these impossible expectations. But how can he, when there are bounty hunters gunning for him and several people waiting in line to testify to his lies, deceit, and downright evil? Who is telling the truth here?

Ellis’ internal conflict is demonstrated wonderfully throughout the movie. After spending a few short days with Mud, he is utterly inspired. When some random guy gets handsy with an older girl that Ellis has a crush on, he leaps into action and punches this older guy in the face without even thinking. You’re surprised and impressed. This kids got guts. He leaps into action protecting his love partly because chivalry and heroism is live and well for him at this point. His belief in Mud makes him powerful in that it reaffirms his own personal beliefs. It makes him belief in himself. Later when things begin to unravel, he does the same thing to another guy fooling around with “his girl” but this time his attempt at heroism is brash and crazed rather than brave. Things only unravel further for Ellis as his uncertainty and emotional fragility grows.

Though the story is named after him, Mud is the mysterious object and storytelling device whose relevance is ascribed by our protagonist Ellis. Think of the Gatsby-Carraway dynamic here. The story is less about who Mud actually is and more about who Ellis thinks he is. Nick Carraway saw Gatsby as great. Gatsby himself was actually just a sad man trying to attain something he had lost.

In that way, the story feels like a classic despite being contemporary. Mud on the whole feels particularly dark. Perhaps it was just because I saw Mud after the entirety of True Detective, but the deep mysteries surrounding both Mud and Rustin Cohle resonate particularly well together. The uncertainty shrouding Mud eventually comes to represent the battle between light and dark in the soul of the main character. McConaughey effortlessly portrays the complexities of this in both stories. In Mud, he must fight to protect Ellis’ heart. In True Detective, he’s struggling to preserve his own and protect Good in the world.

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Ellis on his dad’s boat.

If I learned anything important in my time as an English major in college, it was that Shakespeare’s work is timeless because of the way he understands people and how to portray them in drama. Sure, that is a grossly oversimplified statement, but the beauty of his work lies on the internal conflict in all our hearts that happens on three levels: Who do other people think we are? Who do we think we are? And who are we really? All of the drama in his stories come from answering those questions in various ways (Note: Measure for Measure is perhaps the best example of this in the Bard’s work). We are dynamic creatures and portraying that dynamism effectively through our various relationships forces a storyteller to address those three questions.

Who does Ellis think Mud is?

Who does Mud think he himself is?

And most importantly, who is Mud really?

The film answers these questions in a spectacularly dramatic fashion in the final act in a way that both preserves the mystery and power of Mud’s character while simultaneously humanizing him and maturing Ellis into a new man altogether. I won’t give away any more to you, however, but take it from me: Mud is a movie you need to see!

If you haven’t seen this wonderful movie yet then watch it right now on Netflix! Or if you have seen it, what did you think of Mud? Let us know!

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