Mud has been called a modern re-telling of Huck Finn. And if one examines literature, especially literature involving coming-of-age stories, it becomes abundantly clear that male stories are the ones usually told. There is no Holden Caulfield for girls, or, incidentally, no Huck Finn. So, yet again we have a coming-of-age adventure story for boys.
The story follows two 14-year-old boys, Neckbone and Ellis as they travel by boat up the Mississippi river to a small island. There, they find an abandoned boat in a tree, whose habitant is the drifter in hiding, called Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Ellis draws a particular fascination torwards Mud, especially when he learns that he is a fugitive in hiding for defending the girl he’s loved since childhood, Juniper. Ellis, being a 14 year old boy, has romanticized notions about women, so of course he is completely swept up in the damsel-in-distress story. Ellis wants to help Mud in any way he can, so he and Juniper can reunite in the name of love.
Mud is Ellis’ hero, he admires the knight-in-shining armor protection, this is a man that killed for the woman he loves. But Ellis has no idea how dysfunctional Junpier and Mud’s relationship really is. The more he learns, he becomes disappointed and angry. From his parents’ impending divorce, to the advice from Neckbone’s womanizing uncle, (“So you get your heart broke? Don’t walk around with a shit look on your face. Get back in there, get your tip wet. You hear me?”) there doesn’t seem to be the kind of true love in the world that he’s seeking. But this is something Ellis has to learn, something that will take him growing up to do so.
Mud‘s story centers on the relationship between boy and man, fathers and sons. And much at the heart of the story is these male characters’ relationship with women. Every single male character has a story of a woman who wronged him. There is not one woman in the film who doesn’t betray her man, whether it be by cheating on him, using him or forcing him to change.
The opening scene features Galen, Neckbone’s caretaker and uncle, going after a girl who has just run out of the house. “You make sure you always treat your girls like princesses!” She tells Neckbone and Ellis. We soon learn that Galen tried something in bed that she wasn’t comfortable with. Galen and the boys just laugh it off.
Ellis mother, Mary Lee, (played by American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson) is level-headed, all she wants to do is have a conversation with her family at the dinner table about her decision to sell the houseboat. Her husband is angry at this decision, feeling that she is selfish for wanting to uproot the family by moving to town and destroy his livelihood. The father tries to turn Ellis against his mother, and women in general, telling him that they are all liars who are out to get you.
In one argument, the father says to Mary Lee and Ellis, “If you steal a man’s life out from under him in front of your son and think he won’t take a lesson from it than you’re even dumber than you look. She’s raising you like a snake herself, and you can curl up with her before I give a damn.”
Then we have May Pearl, an older girl, the object of Ellis’ affection. One day he spots her in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot with a crowd of her friends and a senior boy with his hands all over her. May Pearl pushes him off, but of course Ellis has to rush and save the day by punching the boy. (Being the knight in shining armor that he envisions Mud as) May Pearl rewards with Ellis a kiss on the cheek, and wants him to call her. One night, alone together at a party, they kiss. In Ellis’ mind, they are now boyfriend and girlfriend. But turns out May Pearl is embarrassed to be seen with a high school freshman, so she betrays him and breaks his heart in public, saying that they were never together.
And of course, there’s Juniper. Tom, Ellis’ neighbor and Mud’s father figure (played by Sam Shepard) plainly states that “The real reason Mud’s in all the trouble he’s got is because of her. He’s been in love with that girl since he was your age.Trouble is she don’t care about nobody but herself.” We learn from Tom that Juniper would get in relationships with abusive men, “bed down with the meanest snake she could” and then when things went bad, she’d go running to Mud. So in all, Juniper is just using Mud. Tom has been betrayed by women too, his wife died in childbirth along with his son.
Mud and Juniper, through notes that Ellis and Neckbone intercept, make plans to meet and run off together. But when Ellis and Neckbone go to pick her up, they find her in a bar hitting on another man. When they relay this information to Mud, however, he does not say anything but “And that’s how it is”.
So yes, the film does depict many of the female characters as ungrateful bitches who’ve ruined their men’s lives. But it does not necessarily end with that portrayal. There’s a pivotal scene at the end which does unhinge this.
Ellis has been dismayed by all he’s learnt. The Juniper and Mud relationship is not the star-crossed lovers story he pictured. His heart has been broken by May Pearl. Ellis’ idealized notions of love have been shattered. And, he has no role models for how to treat women. So when Ellis finds himself being betrayed by a woman, of course he wants to react with the vehemence of his elders, that’s the examples they’ve shown.
But in this pivotal scene, Mud teaches Ellis otherwise. Mud shows up in his room, he tells Ellis “I don’t traffic in the truth too often. But I did love her. I do love her. I just made mistakes. We both did. This is a hard life to keep up with. You can’t blame her for getting tired of trying”.
Here we have Mud not blaming everything on Juniper, but admitting he has made mistakes and is equally flawed as well. This admission is so unlike the other men in the film, who are so willing to blame everything on their wives or girlfriends. When Mud found out Juniper was flirting with another man instead of running off with him, he didn’t respond by spouting off with hatred and anger.
Ellis goes on by saying “My dad says you can’t count on women loving you. He said you can’t trust them.” And Mud, quite unabashedly and plainly responds “That’s not true.”
This is coming from Mud’s hero, who has just completely shut down everything Ellis has been learning from the “role models” around him.
Could the film have benefited from more well-rounded depictions of the female characters? Yes. But here we have who Ellis looks up to smashing everything he has ever learnt by those around him. The audience, like Ellis, is surrounded by these negative and cliched point of views of women. But Mud offers the one point of view that is not completely one dimensional, not so eager to blame everything on women. At the end of the film Ellis is seen waving to a girl who lives near his new apartment building. Perhaps he is able to start over with a new perspective on girls and women, and of love through his coming-of-age experiences with Mud.
The film ends with The Beach Boys “Help Me Rhonda” who’s lyrics perfectly sum up the majority of the male characters’ inner dialogue.
She was gonna be my wife
And I was gonna be her man
But she let another guy come between us
And it ruined our plan
Well, Rhonda you caught my eye (caught my eye)
And I can give you lotsa reasons why
You gotta help me Rhonda
Help me get her out of my heart
I think, ultimately, since the film is mostly from Ellis’ point of view, that is the reason for the limited portrayals of women. Women are mysteries to Ellis, and so they’re mysteries to the audience, too. He can’t help but view the women as the other male figures in his life view them, up until he meets Mud. (Not saying that Mud has an entirely perfect point of view, though)
But in all wouldn’t it be refreshing if we could get some more female narratives? Perhaps one day young girls will get their own Huck Finn story, whether through film or literature.