Mud is being marketed as an updated retelling of Huckleberry Finn, but I don’t recall Mark Twain ever expounding the lesson so central to this film: “Boys, bitches will break your heart.” Now, you would probably surmise that a film featuring such a warning would be somewhat less than progressive when it comes to gender, but you would be wrong. Very, very wrong. Jeff Nichols’s coming-of-age tale of a 14-year-old boy assisting a wanted man in his quest to sail away with his one true love would seem to fit in neatly with the spate of recent hero films, featuring helpless women and taciturn men. But Mud subverts this narrative, highlighting the absurdity of the male presumption that his story is, without question, the only story. Mansplaining, it turns out, does not lead to healthy relationships nor happy Hollywood endings—especially not when the explainer in question is Matthew McConaughey.
Although Mud (McConaughey) recites the epic love song of Mud and Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) as though he’s her avenging knight and she’s his innocent queen, the film suggests that he’s leaving out a few, perhaps key, details. And it becomes increasingly clear that the tale Mud is spinning is his story alone. Mud simply assumes that if he loved Juniper from the moment she helped rescue him from a snakebite, she must have signed up for everlasting devotion as well. He assumes that if he wants to forgo showering for months and travel down the Mississippi River on a filthy boat with no money, she will too. These are not excellent assumptions.Ellis (Tye Sheridan), the boy at the center of the film, cannot fathom Juniper’s inability to see what a swell guy she has in Mud: he’s handsome beneath the layers of grime, sweet, and surprisingly ripped for someone who’s barely eaten in months. But, given that he has murdered at least one man, isn’t familiar with these newfangled things we call toothbrushes, and probably smells like an outhouse stuffed with cod, I suspect viewers might understand Juniper’s misgivings.
Juniper is definitely not a queen. She’s not even likable. After watching her “betray” the childlike Mud and trample the romantic delusions of a sensitive teenager, it’s easy to write her off as the embodiment of female duplicity. But Nichols offers a few brief glimpses into Juniper’s head, suggesting that she’s not heartless. She simply no longer wants to play her role in Mud’s fairytale.
After Juniper refuses to join Mud and calmly reads his final love letter in front of Ellis, she presents a stern face to the heartbroken adolescent. But after Ellis leaves her hotel room, he peaks into her window to find her weeping on the bed. This one scene doesn’t discount the fact that Juniper, like Mud, is a problematic, manipulative figure. But the film doesn’t rest on Mud’s or Ellis’s assumptions of her. It asks whether Mud’s love for Juniper is really the love of a romantic myth that can’t handle her complex desires. Juniper’s desertion is then not indicative of her cruelty. It’s merely evidence that Mud’s story isn’t the only one worth hearing.
But the film isn’t really about Mud and Juniper. It’s Ellis’s story. Now, the first thing to understand about Ellis is that although this boy is a sweet, romantic, 105-pound kid, he can certainly land a punch. He clocks about five people in this film and even manages to put McConaughey on his back. These fisticuffs are significant because he’s almost always hitting a man in defense of a woman. One might then suspect that we have a miniature hero in training. But Ellis’s adventures in the film actually teach him the exact opposite of what most heroes know to be “true.” He learns that women aren’t simply there to mirror his desires.
When Ellis first pummels an older boy for disrespecting his townie crush, May Pearl, (these names, seriously), he assumes that she MUST be interested in him despite the fact that she’s two years older and about six inches taller. Two years in high school is equivalent to about ten years when you’re an adult, so we all know this won’t end well. When Ellis actually manages to snag May Pearl’s number and take her on a date—complete with a chaste kiss—he assumes that, ipso facto, she’s his woman. He forgets to clear this with her though, which would have been wise. Although it’s heartbreaking when he finds out that she has no intention of dating him (after he’s punched out the guy she was kissing rather unchastely), this heartbreak does serve a useful purpose. Ellis, unlike Mud, learns that real woman may not always agree with him, even when he’s nice.
The woman who first proves incomprehensible to Ellis is, not surprisingly, his mother. We only learn that she’s divorcing his father and selling their river house through the father’s angry speech. One only needs to imagine what that creaky, catfish-infested house must smell like in order to determine why she might want to leave. But Mud’s father believes she’s destroying their family and challenging his place as the head of the household. He laments the fact that, in these sad times, a man’s property can just be taken from him. Except this isn’t a man’s property. Ellis’s mother owns the house and all the catfish in it. Ellis’s father tends to leave out these details.
Ellis initially believes that his father’s story is the only story, so his mother becomes the uppity pariah. But, like Juniper, Ellis’s mother doesn’t remain a two-dimensional figure. Not only does Ellis’s mother literally say, “there are two sides to every story,” but she also moves Ellis into a non-fish-filled apartment, where we see him encountering girls his own age and progressing from boyhood to adolescence. Perhaps her side of the story isn’t so bad after all.
Now, we never actually hear the mother’s story, but I don’t think this should be considered a shortcoming of the film. Nichols is underscoring the fact that Ellis doesn’t yet understand women—Juniper, May Pearl, and, most of all, his mother. They are completely incomprehensible to Ellis, which makes sense considering the fact that he’s a fourteen-year-old boy. Nichols could have claimed he was filming a coming-of-age story—full stop—but instead he makes it clear that he’s making a male coming-of-age story. He doesn’t assume that the masculine position is universal, which, in American film, is not only unique. It’s pretty fucking revolutionary.