It’s harrowing what love can do to a man. It can make them hate, or kill, or simply hearten those who do. Even more painful is that love makes them wait. For as long as possible, those lovers wait for that love to bloom, or to come back, or to become full again. Jeff Nichols’ Mud seems as beaten by love as its characters, who all seem to seek this inexplicable sensation in different places and due to different circumstances.
In the center of them all, personifying love at its most doleful, is the film’s titular character, played with undiluted woe by Matthew McConaughey, who skulks restlessly on an unpeopled island, waiting for his love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to come back to him. Juniper has broken his heart many times before – she leaves him and returns to him in her time of need, only to leave again, and again, and again. She is also a woman who Mud has even killed for.
Mud has even lost his home for his muddled and bemused love. And still, he lives with the constant conviction that Juniper does indeed love him like he hopes, and that this time, it will be different, that she will not leave him like before. So hopeless in his love, he does not even think to stray, simply awaiting her return, confident and expectant. He waits even if it means lingering in an uninhabited island in the middle of ageless nowhere, smoking his cigarettes, making his bonfires, and wasting away until the day comes again and until she reappears.
All of this is unknown to the two boys when they first agree to help Mud reunite with his lost love. After a day of adventuring, the two simply come across this strange man on an island that they initially thought was theirs to endlessly unearth and conquer. One of the two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), is as relatable as any young boy could ever be: He is audacious and stubborn, and he is arriving at a point in his life where he is only beginning to search for a purpose and a meaning to it all. Also, his parents are separating – parents who have not once denied him their love and have given him the luckless assurance that he could, just as much, expect love from the world he’s been borne into.
Ellis is the kind of boy who eternally hankers to be a leader, fully knowing that he’s as lost in life as any. Perhaps, he thinks – like those even twice his age do – that love would give him an ultimate purpose in life, like some sort of wonder that suddenly shines a light upon human lives and makes them wholesome and beautiful and clean and seamless and worth living. He is too buoyant and too unaffected by the actuality of life: that it is much more intricate and obscure than such naïve and beautiful reveries. It is through Mud that Ellis learns of disappointment and of life, as his promise of helping this marooned stranger a way back into the arms of his love brings him closer to cruel instances of malice and promiscuity, and to cunning reality itself.
By nature, the boys, like the audience, are wary of this mystifying man, who is covered in muck and whose words merely trickle from his mouth in lethargy. He is suspicious, and even those back in the township that know of Mud warn the boys against the man: He is a liar, they say. A crook. Yet all he is, really, is a distraught and forlorn lover, caught in a whirlwind of his own misguided hopefulness. And boys as youthful as Ellis and his friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), find themselves engulfed in the man’s drama. They haven’t had their own yet. They are still young, and only at such an age could they involve themselves with another man’s misery and need for love. They have yet to be broken and disenchanted by experience, to learn to distance themselves from such quandaries, and just like the much-older Mud, the two of them are simply too hopeful to just let go. Ellis also seeks some therapy for his parent’s separation. He wants love to have a happy ending, and that is perhaps why he is helping this strange and forsaken man. Neckbone’s motivation is even more beautiful and naïve: He simply looks up to Ellis. It is his love for his childhood companion that drives him towards such jeopardy and such frightening vulnerability.
Throughout the film, both Ellis and Neckbone are met with myriad instances of unkindness at the hands of women. Every man they know seems to have been hurt by them, and they all seem to hold on to their aches with torment and with vindictiveness. Ellis’ father is doleful over his impending separation, and Mud’s disheartened protector (Sam Shepard) warns Ellis solely of Juniper’s callousness and promiscuity. The women are oftentimes compared to snakes. And just as Mud tells the boys when they first meet them: Snakes are made for man to fear. Perhaps what would have been fitting in the furtherance of those remarks, in accordance with these characters, was that they were also made for man to love. But the men are all mistaken. They are too self-involved to move past their own self-dwellings and self-pity to even consider what the female characters are feeling or discerning within themselves. No different than the men, the women, too, have grown disheartened and pained and disappointed by the world around them, and they too must find some way to make their reality more bearable and more comfortable. Sometimes, this means that they have to leave.
Very rarely does Mud offer insight into the female characters’ ponderings, and it is not all a miscalculation on the part of the film. Mud chooses to show that mere one side of the chaos so that the viewers can unravel its bias by themselves, and to look past their own wounds and heavy hearts to allow themselves empathy with both sides in this malady of love, even if only one side of the story is actually told – as it so often is.
From the man that sits alone on white sand and smokes his cigarette and waits, to the one who persistently runs away because she is afraid, Mud is a tale draped and swathed in love that is both ugly and naïve. The two are so often the same, and there is really no one definition of love, no exact delineation. Not every woman and man and not every kind of love is as duplicitous as the characters in the film oftentimes believe it to be – already overlooking the less straining forms of love they already possess: the love of a mother for a child, or a friend for a companion, or the love of siblings, and the love of mentors, or even that unfortunate human need for love itself – a constant that never truly submits to the often-unpleasant reality of emotions and of human beings.
Mud allows its characters to be wrong and misguided, and so often, it seems as if the characters do not truly find the closure they deserve or the understanding they need to grasp. But the film does allow its audience this sense of closure. When the boys first stumble upon this island and run through its trees and its wilderness to wander and wander and wander without regard, it does not take them long to come across a daunting river of snakes. Neckbone, strong and protective of his friend, takes a rock and heaves it among the creatures. They disperse, and allow both safe passage over the stream. This minute stream is most akin to that sweeping definition of love, which all of Mud’s characters so incessantly pine for, than anything else in the film. We choose what river to cross and what river to fall into, just as we choose what to hold onto and what to let go. There are snakes in every stream, and some people leap into these dangerous brooks despite their premonitions, and some avoid them, and others merely fall, yet neither torrent is to blame and nor are the dawdling serpents that know no better than to bite.