A lot of conversation on social media—not to mention with my wife—caused me to introduce these points as conversation starters:
1. One big difference between Ellis and Mattie is that Ellis doesn’t lose his leg as a result of the snake bite. We see his leg swelling up in such a way that, for a moment, that seems quite possible. Mattie, of course, ambiguously deserved her mutilation, reflecting as it does both her terrible sin and her broken soul. She has more in common with the grieving dad out to kill the man who killed his son out of vengeance than Ellis.
2. Because this film is about love and friendship in their highly noble and relational forms, it’s edifying message makes it seem to be nothing like TRUE GRIT. But the way it borrows from TRUE GRIT still make it seem as if it means to be the new TRUE GRIT, just as the Coen brothers aimed to replace Portis’ message about necessity and nobility with their own. And just as those brothers aimed to replace TENDER MERCIES with the chance-and-necessity world of their NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. So I put MUD in the same southern league with TENDER MERCIES, and that means we have to look hard for grace when we think about it. It wouldn’t be as obvious as it is in TENDER MERCIES.
3. MUD is mighty complicated on place. For one thing, there’s the womanly realism of Ellis’ mom (she’s finally more good than not), who knows it a time for change, time to abandon the trailers, houseboats, and the generally dysfunctional life on the river. The film ends with the scene of a gleaming apartment complex. Ellis will, with the help of his friend Neckbone, organize his new (and nicer) room. And we see him noticing that this apartment complex is filled with beautiful teenage girls who are already noticing him. So love and friendship continue for a man like him as a “townie,” and his fears about the coldness of town life turnout out to be prejudices. (Pay attention Porchers.) He’s going to find his place there, as a man of his natural gifts and habitual nobility can find it anywhere. His dad can’t live in town, we also learn, but he still loves his son—loves him more—and will find a regular place in his life.
4. Mud and Ellis are a lot alike. Mud is right to say that the boy reminds him of himself at that age. And Ellis fully appreciates that Mud may well have been right to kill a man to protect the girl he loved. Ellis would have killed for her too, had he been stronger. That Ellis’ sins are mainly mistaken judgments in the service of misbegotten love is the reason that he’s allowed—with the help of the “foster father” who saves him—to escape to freedom, to a world beyond the law that can’t account for him.
5. In the thread, Parker says he sees a debt in the film to Flanner O’Connor’s Misfit. Not sure about that. But a southern film at this literary pay grade must have all kinds of subtle debts to O’Connor. Divide up into small groups and discuss.
UPDATE: Here are a couple paragraphs drawn from an interview with MUD filmmaker (director and writer) Jeff Nichols on his influences:
The writers that have influenced me the most are: Larry Brown, Raymond Carver, Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, and Charles Portis. Larry Brown’s short fiction set the bar for how to write about blue collar Southerners. Raymond Carver, who Brown studied, was a master of observing every day emotions and actions. Mark Twain was an actual genius and possessed more wit than anyone I’ve ever read. All of these writers made me want to learn how to become a good storyteller.
The films that have influenced me most are: The Hustler, Badlands, Hud, Tender Mercies, Cool Hand Luke, A Perfect World, and Laurence of Arabia. I also really like Fletch. I feel like all of these films reached an honest place in regard to the human condition while also stringing together really entertaining stories.
I call your attention to the places of O’Connor and TENDER MERCIES.