Jeff Nichols’s “Mud” (2012) may as well be called “Love” for how interchangeably murky and ugly the film seems to present the two concepts. It is so easy when it comes to love to be sloppily sentimental and trivial, as is evident by many a rom-com as well as by how dangerously close even this film gets to that. And yet love remains one of our most powerful driving forces and precious aspirations as well as complicated and painful enigmas. What makes “Mud” a perhaps more compelling account is that it is not a love story but rather a story about love in its various profound and less-than-pretty forms.
Fourteen-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone come across a boat stuck in a tree when they meet a mysterious man by the name of Mud, played by a grimy yet sincere Matthew McConaughey, hiding out on a tiny island. Mud offers the boys the boat in exchange for helping him get food, to which they agree until they realize he is a wanted criminal. When Mud explains that he is waiting for his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to arrive so they can run away together, Ellis is touched and agrees to help Mud repair the boat to escape. Seeking an escape from his parents’ nasty divorce as well as hope for his own crush on an older, high school girl, Ellis chooses to trust Mud and the idea he seems to embody of love itself.
Instead, Ellis finds it to be something far more bleak. It is the sense of safety and home of his family’s river houseboat threatened by divorce. It is the tree boat that feels like a special place belonging just to them but that as something the boys just found is occupied by another stranger. It is the disillusionment of first love revealed to be naive, shallow, and jealous. It is the not-so-unconditional relationship between Mud and Tom (Sam Shepard), an old father figure who refuses to help Mud in his pursuit of Juniper. It is the betrayal of an idea when Ellis’s trust in Mud and his love for Juniper leads him to become a thief. It is the perfect and grandiose dream of romance overpowering all else that shatters with the realization that love can be unrequited, destructive, manipulative, unfulfilling, and painful.
When Ellis’s crush declares in front of all her friends that she is not his girlfriend, he pauses, dumbstruck. “But, I love you,” he tells her. And so often we feel that that should be enough on its own, that love is an end in itself.
As easy as it is to be sentimental and naive about love, the film’s ending leads us to believe that it becomes just as easy and perhaps even safer to be cynical about it. To dismiss it as not real or valuable or useful. But it flows along, changing constantly over time, not only causing but healing wounds and helping us learn or grow. Often, it exists somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of ugly and painful to beautiful and magical, moving back and forth between the two. Mud, in this case, refers to not just the dirt at the bottom of a river but a man driven to protect those he loves. It is not a constant state of one or the other but a drive, which we must choose how to act upon and use.