Mud brought the islands and delta towns of the Mississippi River to the big screen. For many, it was a first look into the secret hideouts of a river they’ve only known from afar. For us, it was more like seeing an old friend cast in a new place. We had some thoughts on how Old Man River was captured and portrayed, so we thought we’d share them. Below you’ll find a review from Mark River, an analysis by Christopher Wolf Staudinger, as well as a Q&A with Bobby Childers, who is from DeWitt, Arkansas, where the film was set.
The setting was moving physically because every time Ellis hopped in his motorboat I could feel what he was seeing from my relationship with the River. The sandy islands, big, beautiful cottonwoods and willows. The sound of the waves crashing the shore. The birds singing in the background. The sight of the boat in the trees reminded me of the floods I have experience in my life growing up close to the River and the miraculous items you find in the trees in the aftermath.
The runnel full of snakes was an exaggeration. First of all, those snakes were harmless water snakes and only congregate in “mating balls” once a year in more unexplored settings. The bite Ellis received would have been from a huge poisonous snake. The one thing I noticed was the absence of barge traffic.
The houseboat was the most relevant symbol or prop of the movie. There were so many lessons guided through that structure. A hard work ethic is the lifestyle of a commercial fisherman. It’s legacy throughout generations and the River’s sustainable gifts of life. The importance of a man having his own things so he can control his own destiny. The example of how the powers that be are taking away peoples’ rights to sustain themselves. Know one owns the River. It’s sacred and giving to all that protect and preserve. A Mississippi River houseboat is in my future.
The importance of relationships based on trust, honesty, and respect were very prevalent with a young kid going through puberty watching his parents’ relationship fall apart, while falling in love himself. That’s heavy. Meeting a stranger who wins their trust over by not stealing their boat was brilliant. This happens everyday in our society. Kids will find trust and honesty somehow, and when they find it, they cherish it. I really liked Ellis and Neckbone’s relationship, which was solid. The strong signs of family love was throughout the movie. Neckbone’s uncle, the mussel diver was a great example of hard work, family, and sacrifice.
I really liked Ellis and his respect for women. He reminded me of myself growing up protecting my sister, winning some and losing some. He stood up for what he thought was right, and he and Mud connected in that manner. The checks and balances of small towns and the discrepancy of income is noticeable. The lack of safety was prevalent. No life jackets or helmets on motorcycles. Fourteen years old driving dirt-bikes through town shows the independence and lawlessness of small towns.
More than anything it showed that life goes on even after the love is gone. You win some and lose some. You must get back up and continue. There’s more than one fish in the sea. Change isn’t always bad and be selective.
The other day, I walked across a recently surfaced sandbar towards a white hump on the horizon. It was too big to be a refrigerator and too massive for a scrap of plastic. I looked alternately between the white shape in the distance and my feet beneath me, careful not to step on the speckled brown eggs of the Least Terns nesting on the hot sand. Their mothers yelled and hovered and dove at me. “I’m sorry,” I told them, “Won’t step on your babies,” and watched the white mass in the distance begin showing angles, a dark splotch in the middle, and a huge crater dug out of the sand where it sat. It was a boat, a twenty foot powerboat overturned in the middle of an island. I circled it, letting my mind dream up fiberglass repairs, a gathering of hands, arms, and legs, straining to right it, and a long, free float to the ocean. I smiled and walked away.
This was the Mississippi River that Little Rock native, Jeff Nichols showed in his film Mud. It was a river so full of mysterious possibility that nonfiction and fantasy come together kaleidoscopically. When his bold young river rats, Ellis and Neckbone, escape their lives to a remote island and find an attractive boat stuck up in a tree on an island, the river’s potential for mystery is unlocked and the story unfolds.
The opening scene is the kindling for the film’s momentum. Under the weak darkness of the early morning, two boys too young to be at the helm of a boat are alone at the helm of a boat, its ratchety motor purring with the violins of the opening score, on their way to do something they’re clearly not supposed to. They pass through a jungly channel overhung with peering trees and jagged mud banks. The sun (which is captured so beautifully throughout the film) sneaks its rays through spots in the canopy, as the silent boys look out on the water. Then it happens. In a splendid work of young acting, the boys’ eyes fill with such authentic looks of awe and godfear that you’re made to trust them for the rest of the film. Through the tunnel of trees, the big river emerges, gliding across the horizon like spirits.
The river and its islands are true to form with very little Hollywood gloss. Mud was filmed on a real river island near Eudora, Arkansas. Nichols let the island speak for itself with the cicadas, crickets, birds, and wispy willows that the river gave him. Even makeup was minimal, since the actors camped out on the islands while shooting river scenes. McConaughey says his sweaty face was mostly his sweaty face, and the rawness of the filming made the scenes some of the easiest ever. The island setting stood in stark contrast to the scenes on land of a dull Arkansas Delta town. Those dusky scenes of things one might consider ugly – rusty billboards, dried up swimming pools, and the local Piggly Wiggly – were no less beautiful than the river scenes, which is a testament to the kind of filmmaker that Nichols is. And both play off of each other to give the film its full meaning.
Ellis and Neckbone are the dream progeny of river rats everywhere. They are misfits in the town of DeWitt, Arkansas. Ellis doesn’t even live on land. He wakes up on the water every morning on a houseboat, and he fishes commercially with his father (the early morning glimpses of Ellis in the bed of his father’s pickup, handing fish to old people in old houses, are some of the most moving shots of the film). But when the separation of his parents threatens this wild lifestyle and a move from the houseboat, Ellis yells, “I aint no townie!”, and sneaks out to the island. His struggle with the rules and reality of love fuels the movie.
Ellis’ conversations with his parents are brief and predictable. His interactions with girls are awkward and stunted. Our only window into his inner life – and the mysterious workings of outsider boys as they come of age – is through his friend Neckbone (“Neck”), with whom he finds ample mischief. Neck lost his parents somewhere beyond the scope of the film and is being raised by an affable mussel-diving punk rocker who is rarely seen wearing anything but his wetsuit. A subtle but charming way we see these boys grow up is watching Neckbone learn to say his favorite word, “Shit,” without sounding like a child.
Neither Ellis nor Neckbone fit in the dreary world of DeWitt teenagedom – its girls, its fights, or the hellish monotony of socializing in grocery store parking lots. They’re too young, for one thing, but, owing to their questionable backgrounds, it wouldn’t be surprising if they never did fit. As they make their bewildering march towards puberty, manhood, and the world beyond, they have two choices. The first is to squeeze and force themselves into a mold that they are not, and to die the deaths of self that go along with it. The second is to run. Real life misfit kids do so frequently, in cyberspace or fantasy novels. Ellis and Neckbone go where the greatest of our culture’s outliers have always gone. They run to the river.
On the island, when they find the boat, balancing in the fork of a tall tree, it’s something separate, foreign, mystical, and totally their own. If the Piggly Wiggly is the anchor for the land scenes in DeWitt, this boat, perched high in the trees, full of the potential to fall or be infested with rabid animals or to float away, is the central monument of the shaky, extemporal world of the Mississippi River.
The character played by Matthew McConaughey (who positively glows out there on that island) is the human embodiment of that outsider’s river. He’s a fugitive hiding in the bottomland hardwood forests of a Mississippi River island after killing the man who abused his lover. He is a man who nails crosses to the soles of his boots to “ward off evil spirits,” and only owns one shirt, which has a wolf eye sewn into its sleeve for protection. He’s always been an island. “His logic was astral,” says McConaughey of his character, “He lives in the clouds.” His name, not so coincidentally, is Mud, and the boat in the tree “belongs” to him. The boys are his keys to fixing the boat and floating the river to freedom. His character makes it possible for the sand of the island to split open and speak like a mouth. They’re mysterious lessons that, like the river and Mud himself, are alternately sinister, loving, beautiful, dirty, radiant, violent, gentle, dark, and dangerous. He teaches them how not to fit in and how to do it with gusto, as well as the raw lessons of an unhinged, torrentially-flowing love.
A heap of drama, mostly on land, occupies the bulk of the film, and I won’t try to wade through it. They contrast the much calmer, subtler island scenes so harshly that they risk undermining the whole movie. Full of guns and hyperactivity, these land scenes are ironically less believable than the island scenes. I thought Nichols could have driven his plot with more restrained action. The river, like Reece Witherspoon’s character, waits in the wings, overshadowed by sleazy bounty hunters (I overheard two ladies in the theater talking after the movie, “They didn’t develop her at all. She might not’ve said twenty-five words the whole time.”) But perhaps the river needed to sit so far in the background, to loom and mystify, and to be apart. That is the role it seems to take in the DeWitt locals’ lives, anyway.
To say wholeheartedly that the river is where these kids belong would risk romanticization. My friend and co-worker, Mark River Peoples, says that the most important part of an adventure is the coming home. It maintains the reference point for your reality and your self. If you don’t return, you have lost something. Think of those who have receded to their Internet or fantasy worlds and can no longer communicate with people in the flesh. Ellis and Neckbone need to return. They need to get squeezed through the meat grinder of adolescence, so that they can come out on the other side whole. Nichols acknowledges this. When Ellis’ strong moral compass can no longer accommodate Mud’s “astral” logic and human weakness, the return begins. After not one but two scenes of the utmost melodrama which I will not deign to repeat, Ellis and Neckbone return home. But not without Mud’s lessons in the backs of their minds.
The Mississippi’s ability to harbor the marginalized, the victimized, the victimizer, and the shunned has captured the curiosity of American writers and poets for forever. The reason is that the River has never and will never be captured at all, not by levees, political borders, laws, maps, morality, or any one piece of art. A part of it will always flow out, like water through your cupped hands.
People ask all the time how you choose a campsite on the Mississippi River. I tell them wherever we find flat, dry ground and firewood. When they ask if we know who owns the land, I say it doesn’t matter. The Mississippi will always be its own autonomous zone, forever outside, on the border, or beyond the town or city by which it chooses to flow. It’s a world of sand dunes beyond city streets and forests beyond street lights. The identity of the river may rub off on that town or city, but the identity of the town will never rub off on the eternal river. Because of that, the space will always be an other, a monstrous other, a radically different other that gives (temporary) haven to those who don’t fit.
Christopher Wolf Staudinger
We asked our friend, Bobby Childers, for his thoughts, and he gave us some keen insight.
How was DeWitt represented? True to form?
I know they filmed most of it in Dumas. How does that compare? The film was more regional, for the bulk of the work was spread out over a thirty mile radius around DeWitt, but because the DeWitt name was used it carries the burden of those representations. All that was depicted was an accurate portrayal; however; it was for a very, very, small snap shot of the area and those within it. It showed the culture and environment for those that was relevant to the plot. There was more focus on the grit, dirt and unrefined aspects of delta living. It was not representative of the entire community or area. It need not be. There was an agenda and that was accomplished through their approach.