Livin' on a tributary to the Mississippi ain't an easy life. The rooms in their little houseboat home are tiny and cluttered. And earning just enough to get by from selling catfish door-to-door is a hard grind. But it's the only life young Ellis has ever known.
It looks, though, like that may soon change. He can hear his parents arguing. He knows his mom's threatening to move into town and leave everything she hates behind. The only thing he doesn't know for sure is where that'll leave him.
'Course, that's not what's at the front of his 14-year-old mind right now. See, he and his best friend Neckbone have got a secret. Naw, they got a mission. His folks may be proof that love is somethin' fragile, somethin' that'll wither and die with neglect and the rust of time. But this mission, ya see, well, it's all about somethin' that's solid.
It all started just a day or so ago when, on hearin' a rumor, they took the old skiff downstream to a small island. They'd heard some kid talkin' about a boat up in a tree. That's right, it'd been dumped up there and stuck like a cork in a bottle after the flood waters washed through last year. And if they could find it on that island, why, they'd make it their own.
And sure enough, there it was, settin' level as you'd like way up top of an old oak or somesuch. They climbed up. Found it had a lower hold with bunks and scattered pans and bottles. This was sure enough gonna be their tree fort. Well … except they found somethin' else, too. They found someone else.
They came upon a grungy, tattooed guy—don't call him a bum, whatever you do—who'd been livin' in that boat for who knows how long. He's got this snake tattoo windin' 'round his chest, a magical white shirt, and a .45 he keeps stuck in his waistband. And that's about it.
His name is Mud.
It didn't take long to realize that Mud was there for somethin' special. He was waiting for a girl. He came right out and told them so, with a sparkle and a shine in his eye. She's a girl with legs as long as a tree trunk, he says. And hair as blonde as sunshine. A girl with nightingales tattooed on her hands, just to show how free and good she is. A girl named Juniper. A girl Mud loves more than life itself.
Mud even promised that if they help him—get him a few cans of food and help him locate that wondrous girl—why, he'd give them the boat. And while it's quite a prize, Ellis doesn't need any more convincin'. For he has seen the purest of passions. He has heard the words of a true believer and become one himself.
Ellis is a happy convert, on a mission of love.
For all of the breakups, betrayals and broken hearts of this story, the film offers up the hope that true love can be found and new beginnings are always possible. When Ellis worries that love is hopeless, Mud tells him, "You're a good man, Ellis. You meet a girl half as good you're gonna be alright." Mud has done some less than honorable things (he even calls himself a "bad man"), but we find out that everything he's done was motivated by his deep love and sense of protection for a woman who once saved his life. That doesn't make it right, as Mud full well knows. But it does give context.
Another side of love constantly on display is the connection between Ellis and his parents. His mom and dad are on the verge of divorce, but they both voice their deep love for him. And he goes out of his way to tell them the same.
Mud's adopted father, Tom Blankenship, picked him up and cared for him when he was just a family-less kid wandering the woods. He rejects Mud's foolish actions and choices as an adult, but he still comes to the younger man's rescue when the chips are down. Or maybe I should say when the ships are up.
For his part, Ellis refuses to give up on the idea of love. He sees his parent's relationship crumbling and his own girlfriend turning away. But, if anything, that makes him redouble his efforts to carry messages and find ways for Mud and Juniper to overcome the odds and walk the path of love.
Mud puts his life and his freedom in danger to rush a snakebite victim to the hospital.
Without question, Mud is a hodgepodge of beliefs and fears when it comes to the spiritual world around him. He has nails pounded into the heels of his boots in the shape of the cross to ward off evil. He has a white shirt with special "wolf sign" markings on it to protect him from harm. And he builds bonfires, certain that the smoke and ash will dispel the bad mojo of things around him. When Neckbone mentions that he hates snakes, Mud declares plainly that God put them here on the earth for the singular purpose of giving us something to fear.
We find out later that there's a man coming for the scruffy loner who Mud labels "Scratch," calling him "the devil himself." After this man (whose real name is King) gathers a group of bounty hunters, he tells them to join hands and take a knee to "pray for the death of the man who killed my son."
One of the things the boys find in the boat is an old stash of Penthouse magazines. We see Neckbone ogling and crowing over the contents. And when a couple of local girls wear low-cut tops, Neckbone ogles them too. We hear the boys talking crudely about touching a particular girl's breasts.
An older girl named May Pearl becomes the apple of Ellis' eye. He asks her to be his gal, and she kisses him on the forehead and lightly on the lips.
Both Neckbone's uncle and Mud go shirtless. Juniper wears particularly skimpy tops, one of which leaves her bra poking out around the edges. While in a bar, a stranger nuzzles her neck. And it's mentioned that Juniper tends to "hook up" with gritty guys.
A few crude sexual statements are mixed in with milder but still sexual material. An example: When the boys go over to Neckbone's house, they realize that Neck's uncle is inside having sex (because his "doing it song" is playing).
Mud tells a story of almost dying from the bite of a cottonmouth water snake as a boy. We see someone fall into a ditch full of the snakes and get bitten. (Horrible swelling quickly sets in.) A group of bounty hunters start a shootout, and nearly everyone within range is blasted and bloodied with rifle, shotgun and sniper fire. Men fall in gushes of gore, and bodies are strewn about the area.
A thug slams Juniper up against a hotel wall. When Ellis runs over to push the man away, the man pins the boy down and punches him in the face. Ellis has other scuffles too, generally punching kids much bigger than him. In one case his target slinks away. In another the kid jumps out of his car and bloodies Ellis' nose with several blows.
[Spoiler Warning] Mud tells of killing a man who dropped Juniper down a flight of stairs causing her to miscarry.
Crude or Profane Language
There are close to 25 s-words. And we hear a handful each of "h‑‑‑," "b‑‑ch" and "a‑‑." Jesus' name is misused once and God's is combined with "d‑‑n" three times. And I should note that much of this film's foul language comes from the two boys. Juniper flips her middle finger at a bunch of cat-calling guys.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Most of the men we see—including Ellis' dad—smoke from time to time. And Mud is practically a chain-smoker. Juniper smokes as well. Often, that puffing happens in combination with boozing: A bar full of adults drink beer and alcohol, and Ellis' dad drowns his sorrows in a bottle of whiskey, as does Mud. (We see the latter man's discarded bottle after the fact.)
Other Negative Elements
People give Ellis mixed messages when it comes to the subject of love. Ellis' dad tells him to be very careful around deceitful women, saying, "You can't trust love, Ellis." And even Mud conveys something similar, saying, "Marriage just don't work for some people."
[Spoiler Warning] There's a bit of a mixed message about being a "bad man" with a chance to start fresh in this movie too. Mud leaves his past in the past, and he turns himself around, as he should. But justice is never rendered, really, and he essentially gets away with murder in the end.
Mud gives Neckbone his .45 (minus the bullets) as payment for his help. Mud tells half-truths. The boys end up stealing for him.
Much like last year's art-house favorite Beasts of the Southern Wild, this is a film that communicates its earnestness through a unique set of characters—scraping and scrabbling for existence—and a rich, realistic locale that most viewers will see as exotically different from their own. But unlike Beasts, Mud feels more like a novel than a movie. Director Jeff Nichols leisurely turns the pages of his slow-water tale, keeping readers/viewers immersed in this musty-aired boat-in-a-tree world and always holding the promise of a point just a few pages away.
And in many ways that works very well.
The actors play their parts with just the right blend of grit, desire and deep delta sweat. The boys-coming-of-age-and-wrestling-with-the-things-of-love story speaks clearly about the disillusionments of life and the hope of new beginnings. It even has warm moments devoted to declaring that the love of friendship and family can stay solid and true even when lesser loves fall away and life grows weary.
There are, however, a few figurative cottonmouths swimming just beneath the surface of this placid river tale. For instance, it assures us that young boys spitting profanities is as common as catfish in the shallows. And if those youths wander out and meet up with a somewhat unhinged man living in a tree, that's a good ol' adventure is what it is. Adults talking crudely about the sexual side of life? Well, hearin' that is just part of growin' up too.
Mud. A combination of life-giving water and … dirt. It's as good a title as any, I guess, when it comes to describing what's between those pages.