Southern Coming of Age Romance. Young Ellis and his friend Neckbone are two young boys living in the impoverished Arkansas off the Mississippi river. While exploring a small island on the river one day, they stumble upon an old boat that has mysteriously found itself way up on a tree. They soon discover it is being inhabited by a fugitive named Mud, played with brilliance by Matthew McConaughey. Mud is on the run from a pack of vigilantes. It turns out he has a troubled life of pursuing his childhood sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), a beautiful white trash woman who cannot seem to stay committed to Mud. She is a floozy who keeps sleeping with bad boys, and then gets in trouble and runs to Mud to protect her. Well, this time, she was beaten up pretty bad, and Mud went too far. But they have agreed to meet up at a certain date in this certain town to run off together. Now Ellis and Neckbone are going to help him reunite with his beloved Juniper and ride off into the sunset.
This movie is refreshing and bold mythic storytelling. It is an extreme rarity: A tale of Male Liberation. Hollywood is flush with Feminist tales of female liberation: Thelma and Louise, The Stepford Wives, Little Black Book, Mona Lisa Smile, Erin Brockavich, The Color Purple, The Help, The Hours, Portrait of a Lady, The Piano, and on and on.
The typical scenario in feminist “romances” is that women interact with all the possible negative stereotypes and cliché’s of men (no quality men seem to exist in this delusionary agenda), only to find that she has allowed herself to be defined by men and discovers that she doesn’t need men, she just needs a vision, a career or some other thing that gives her meaning other than a man. In other words, she can be just like a man and get her meaning from what she does.
As untruthful as this worldview has proven to be in the real world, and despite all the millions of women’s lives that it has ruined by making them think they can be like men, only to discover too late that they are not and are left with crushed desires for a family and relationship, I still actually like watching feminist movies. I still think that stereotypes exist because they are based on real existing patterns, and there are too many abusive and selfish men in this world who use women and do not sacrifice themselves for love. I enjoy feminist movies because I want to be more sensitive and understanding to women and their condition and nature and even how they are unfairly treated at times.
But I still want to keep my testicles, thank you.
And the feminist narrative is not an honest narrative precisely because it is a victim myth. It shifts the blame onto men and society, as well as denying nature and biology. But the only blame women in these narratives have is – now get this – that they have accepted their “oppression.” The classic justification of victim theory: The denial of one’s own true moral failure.
Actually, like Mud, many of us men are incurable romantics who want to be the knight in shining armor that rescues a woman and provides for her safety and happiness in this world. Yes, we do exist. And men can be used just as much by women as in the reverse. And they often are. But the difference between feminist movies and a men’s liberation story is that the male liberation narrative, like Mud, is a more honest self-aware narrative. It doesn’t shift the blame onto women, it only acknowledges “bad” women, while admitting men’s own flaws. This is not only more true and honest, it makes for better storytelling and richer more complex characters – as opposed to negative clichés of feminism.
So, in Mud, you actually have the manipulative female, but you also have all the classic negative males. But here’s the twist, both the men and women all have both good and bad traits. No one is completely bad. But no man or woman is completely good either. Let me explain.
The protagonist is not actually Mud, but the young boy Ellis. This is a male coming of age story that for once isn’t about “losing your virginity.” Mud becomes the mentor hero that Ellis looks up to because Ellis is falling “in first love” with a young lady in town, and he is drawn to Mud’s romanticism and heroic desire to protect Juniper. The problem is, Ellis’ love interest is another young version of Juniper who Ellis uses his brawn to protect, only to discover she is manipulating him. So as Ellis looks around him, he gets advice from his father that “love will not last” just as love in his marriage did not last (And by the way, his wife is not depicted as the problem either). He sees the betrayal of Juniper, and you would think even Mud would learn a misogynist message that no woman is worth it. But that is not the answer in this story. Both Mud and Ellis remain romantics in realizing that they were just fools to fall for the wrong one. They still believe in love.
And why? Because a woman needs a man to believe in, but a man needs a woman who believes in him. We need each other. And to give up on that would be to become cynical and lose the hope of true romantic and chivalric love. In other words to become feminist or egalitarian.
Ellis’s dad is a struggling man of low employment whose marriage is crumbling because he feels less of a man for not being able to maintain the family riverboat and therefore his fish business. He has his bitter drinking bouts, but AMAZINGLY, he does not degenerate into the classic cliché wife beater! Not once does he become violent. It is an honest dealing with what many men struggle with. I ask you, when was the last time you ever saw a Southern out of work hick who was NOT a wifebeater in a movie? And this is not a very good example of a father in his lack of communication. But we see that he does love his son, and that he has a high value of ethics on not stealing. These characters are wonderfully fascinating and rich characters with flaws and good qualities. We are after all, fallen splendor.
Neckbone is living with his uncle, a kind of industrious slacker played with fantastic nuance by Michael Shannon. This guy hasn’t grown up. He’s in his thirties probably, still plays in a rock band like a high schooler, is not sexually sensitive to his girlfriend, and is not a great influence on Neckbone. BUT he is amazingly ingenious in creating a diving suit with lights to get clam traps in the river as well as repairing good junk he finds and makes it usable again. He provides the wisdom of the film when he says, “This river brings a lot of trash down it. Some of it is worth a lot of money. Some of it is junk. You gotta know what’s worth keeping and what to let go.” When he discovers his nephew might be getting into trouble with Ellis, he doesn’t act like a Nazi but he does keep an eye on his nephew and warns him about being responsible.
Then, Sam Shepherd plays an ex-marine sharpshooter who raised Mud and tries to stay out of everybody’s business like the classic curmudgeon. But when his shooting skills are needed to stop the bad guys, he’s there, baby! Like a MAN!
Then you have Mud. Not the best of male examples for a young boy. BUT he knows it. His story begins with a rather selfish bargaining chip of getting the boys to help him rebuild the boat to escape outta there, but ends with him endangering his own life to save Ellis from a snake bite. So the man has to grow up as much as the child. And the most telling and mature wisdom in this film comes when Ellis and Mud are saying goodbye and Mud can see Ellis’ pure heart for love and he tells him “You’re a good man, Ellis.” And Ellis responds by saying that Mud is a good man too, but Mud says, “No. No, I ain’t.” WOW. What feminist movie would admit THAT flaw in their heroine emasculators? This is the honesty of male liberation. Mud knows and admits his flaws and seeks to overcome the flaw in himself, the real moral flaw, not the blameshifting psychological flaw.
I would say that my one big complaint is that Mud never chooses the true moral choice of turning himself in for the crime he did commit and that quite frankly spoils an otherwise fabulous morality tale. But no story is perfect. And we must be able to “know what’s worth keeping and what to let go.”
I could go on. This movie was a refreshing and satisfying story so lacking in today’s blockbuster morrasse of male juvenility.