Piecing Together the Symbolic Fragments of “Mud”

The new film Mud, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is without question a stand-out film for 2013, and it deserves all the critical praise that it has received to date. Most critics have focused on the film’s plot and characterization, both of which are superb, as well as powerful performances by Tye Sheridan (Ellis), Matthew McConaughey (Mud), Sam Shepard (Tom Blankenship), and Reese Witherspoon (Juniper). See, for starter’s, David Denby’s review at The New Yorker; the trailer can be viewed here.

The film is a classic coming-of-age story, but it also about life in rural Arkansas, broken families and their surrogates, and the frustrations and disappointments of romantic love.

Critics have not, however, unpacked the film’s many symbols. That may be because their placement is so subtle and so naturalistic that they can be overlooked or simply taken at face value. One might go so far as to say that they’re not even essential to appreciating the film’s core themes, but I suspect that there’s a deeper undercurrent that we’re supposed to notice. Trouble is, I just haven’t figured it all out yet.

Here’s what I do know.

1. The main character’s name is Mud. It functions on the most basic level as a mere descriptor: his hands get dirty in the course of the film as he fends for himself on an isolated island and repairs a storm-wrecked boat that is his temporary shelter. Of course, his hands are already sullied by the blood he has spilled before the story begins. That said, even Mud’s old acquaintances, notably Tom Blankenship (his surrogate father), call him by this name, so the murder doesn’t change his identification; it only reifies it. Mud is, figuratively and morally, dirty, worthless, and possibly even polluting. He will also be returned to the mud if he is caught by the men who are hunting him down—“for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

To press this point a little further, it seems that Mud may be an allusion to Adam, the first man. Consider Robert Alter’s explanation of his word choice of human and hummus in his translation of Genesis 2:7: “The Hebrew etymological pun is ’adam, ‘human,’ from the soil, ’adamah.” Is Mud Adam? Or perhaps an Everyman?

2. Mud’s right arm is tattooed with a serpent. Is the tattoo a reminder of the copperhead snake that once bit him, or is it something else? It’s nearly impossible not to think of the serpent in Genesis 3:

Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.

3. Mud’s shirt is said to give him supernatural protection. Late in the film he tears a strip from the bottom of his shirt to serve as a tourniquet for Ellis. His lower back is, we can infer, exposed, and this is the very place—surely no coincidence—where he is shot.

4. Mud’s boot heels leave behind imprints in the sand in the shape of a cross. He explains that they are, in fact, nails in the shape of a cross “to ward off evil spirits.”

5. Juniper’s right hand is tattooed with two nightingales, which are referred to as “good luck birds.” It must be no coincidence that nightingales have been the subject for poets from Homer and Aristophanes to Shakespeare and Milton. Perhaps their most famous appearance, however, is in John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” which, according to critic Jack Stillinger, expresses “dissatisfaction with the real world of mortality and mutability . . . and desire to escape that world.” In one stanza, the poet writes:

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.

That’s curious, “a sod”—a coincidence or an intention?

6. The discovery of a boat high in the branches of a tree repeatedly elicits wonder from Mud and the two boys: “It’s a hell of a thing, ain’t it? A hell of a thing.” The characters don’t dwell on how it got there; they assume that it was from a flood. But, as a symbol, it seems curious that an important element of the plot is placed there by a flood of mythic proportions. Whatever the import of the symbol here, it remains off screen—something in the story’s or the region’s primeval past that provides an explanation for a phenomenon in the present.

7. Boats in general, and house boats in particular, are symbols throughout the film. William Thomas Berk (aka Curiosity Inc.) makes this point in his blog post:

Obviously, the symbol of boats as freedom is nothing new in cinema, but this film takes it a step farther. Remember, this movie is about people who live on the water. As such, boats aren’t just transportation for them, but shelter. All too frequently, the movie presents boats as places of safety from the outside world. They don’t just represent freedom, they represent the idea of home.

8. Pearls and trash. Neckbone’s uncle, Galen, makes the point that the river sends a lot of trash downstream, so, he says, it’s important to know “what’s worth keeping and what’s worth letting go.” Galen also harvests clams from the river, but seems to disregard the irregular pearls that are contained within. Matthew 7:6 also comes to mind: “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” Galen’s love interest and Ellis’s are given pearls—the same piece of jewelry, in fact—that they both spurn. Also, throughout the film, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure (or livelihood); in fact, a confusion over what’s trash and what’s a treasure lands Ellis in serious trouble at one point.

9. While not exactly a symbol, the law is a recurrent theme that we see played out in different ways. The ownership of the storm-wrecked boat is a source of contention between Mud and Ellis (and Neckbone). Possession, Mud argues, is nine-tenths of the law—so-called squatter’s rights—even though the law itself is more complicated. Restitution, in the form of the the manhunt for Mud, drives much of the plot but so does Ellis’s theft of the outboard motor and, as a result of divorce, Senior’s (that’s Ellis’s father’s) legal right (or lack thereof) to the house boat, which is also his livelihood. Are there another concepts that supersede law or possession in the film? We’re not offered a clear answer (unlike the two modes we are explicitly offered in a film such as The Tree of Life).

10. The island and open water are negative images of each other. In a few early scene-setting shots, the island is perfectly framed, with water (and light) curling around its edges. It just fits into the frame of the camera. Similarly, in one of the final scenes, Mud and his surrogate father reach the edge of the delta and the open water of the gulf, which are similarly framed, with land (and dark) giving way at its edges.

Both the island and open water are desolate. They are forbidding in their own ways. They both represent wilderness, and not the romanticized benevolent kind (think: deadly snakes, starvation, and so on). On the other hand, the island seems to represent a prison, a dense and forbidding way station, whereas the open water seems to represent a rescue, an invitation, an opportunity.

Are the symbols opposite or merely different? How do they play against each other? And is the open water hopeful—a heaven—or merely void? It’s hard to say for certain without establishing some of the other symbols that have gone before it.

11. Is it significant that the father of the man that Mud killed is named King? Mud has killed the heir of a rich man, so much is clear, but has he killed a symbolic prince? Could this be an allusion to another story or plot? It seemed vaguely Faulknerian, like the lynching of Joe Christmas in Light in August. But, if the perspective of the film is from Ellis’s point of view (not sure that it is consistently), it may be that King is simply a caricature, a powerful man motivated by bloodlust.

12. Friendship, as embodied in the relationships between Ellis and Neckbone, Ellis and Mud, and Mud and Tom Blankenship, seems to be offered in place of romantic love as the thing that ultimately gives or sustains life, particularly between the flights of passion. It certainly drives Ellis and Neckbone in their many acts of service for Mud and, in the end, Mud’s own act of self-sacrifice for Ellis, which may be the most telling and unifying symbol of the film. John 15:13 says it all: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

* * *

I am not sure how these various pieces of the puzzle fit together. I suspect that there are undoubtedly other pieces that I have not accounted for here—and, undoubtedly, a larger pattern at work, artfully layered by this talented writer-director.

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