Jeff Nichols's delicate arrangement of the storyline gives lots of room for afterthoughts about the film's meanings.
While the anticipation of Nomadland (2021) winning the next Best Picture brews — a film that sidetracks the artificial compulsion to captivate the audience’s attention by complex narratives, and recedes to postmodern realism in emphasis of the beautiful sceneries surrounding the characters — I intuitively recall a similar film written and directed by Jeff Nichols from nearly a decade ago.
Its title is simple. Mud (2013).
The story takes place in the Mississippi River, where the sunlight flickers in the water’s rippling and the urban’s clamours are rendered unrecognised. Mud revolves around two 14-year-old boys, Ellis’s (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone’s (Jacob Lofland) encounter with a mysterious man called Mud (Matthew McConaughey) on one of those tiny, peaceful islands. As Ellis fulfils his promise to help Mud rebuild his boat so that he could set sail for a new life with his girlfriend, Juniper, Ellis is seen attempting to observe, ask about, and even figure out the meaning of ‘love’, with himself pursuing an older girl and his parents falling out with each other every day. It is later on revealed that Mud is actually a fugitive for murdering an abusive man who got Juniper pregnant and pushed her off the stairs, which killed the baby and left her infertile.
I remember when I was introducing this film to someone, she frowned and commented, “That sounds intense, gruesome.”. That’s actually the opposite of the case. As Christopher Vogler writes in ‘The Writer’s Journey’, “Every villain is a hero of his or her own story,”. Mud does not shy away from Mud’s crime in denial, but invites us to tread into his heart, feel his undying (or blind, stupid, as some believe) love for Juniper, and understand the motive behind his impetuous action. Mud was aware of the price of avenging his girlfriend, but he did it anyway, which is why Ellis sees him as an example: an epic, romantic tragedy Mud has fallen into because he is willing to go so far pursuing and sacrificing for love. But that is human nature, isn’t it. We are but emotional, philosophical creatures subordinated to our own minds, our instincts, our affections, our sentimentality. We cannot just dispense of what makes us human and transcend into superior, logical beings like the Tralfamadorians in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ who think stopping the end of the universe is as insignificant and meaningless as mourning someone’s death.
One of the reasons why Mud is so relatable is its allowing us to follow the narrative through the innocent, curious eyes of Ellis. At the age of 14, anyone would want to grasp control over all the little things in their life. Ellis genuinely manifests this kind of wish in his pursuit of love’s meaning: after hearing the news of his parents’ divorce, he asks simply, “But you’re married. Aren’t you supposed to love each other?” Looking into the naivety within his bewildered face, you would, even only for an instance, forget that insincerity exists (Sincerity is Scary by The 1975, lovely song!) and uncontrollably ask yourself the same question. Tye Sheridan demonstrates in this film his excellence as an actor, with each twitch and relaxation in his face conveying a subtle response to the grown-ups. (Ready Player One was okay, but, Tye, please go back to indie films like Mud.)
And regarding its resemblance with Nomadland, Mud exhibits a beautiful choice in mise-en-scène and cinematography. The restless yet peaceful Mississippi River comes across as almost a wonderland that immerses us in its serene atmosphere and sheds away the urban’s superficiality. Only at the calm water are Ellis’s innocence and Mud’s love preserved, as if anything and everything around them were laid bare, while all that’s in the town seems to conflict with Ellis and Mud. But perhaps that is the idea of Mud: love is nothing fancy; it’s innocent and simple, like mud.
But, how often do people lie down in mud?
Mud (2012), directed by Jeff Nichols, is distributed in the UK by Imagine Film Distribution, certificate 12A. It’s available for streaming on selected digital platforms. Watch the trailer below: