Major spoilers alert here, as Colin Brown gets me thinking about the strangest and briefest scene in the great go-see-it-now film MUD, and suggests how it might be the key to understanding how it ends.
He describes it thusly, on his Signpostings blog:
One of the eeriest yet most profound visuals…appears near the end, when the camera turns to Galen, Neckbone’s pearl-diving uncle, searching through the junk at the bottom of the river. He looks up, as do we, and see Mud’s seemingly lifeless body above, floating along with the current. It’s a powerful scene, and one which, at the time of my initial viewing, I thought was meant to emphasize to the audience that Mud is dead…
Let’s return to…the last three scenes of the film in which Mud appears. There is the climatic gun fight on Ellis’s family’s houseboat, which ends with Mud who, in attempting to flee into the river, is shot mid-dive. He doesn’t surface, and the assumption is that he has died. We next see Mud as described above, floating lifelessly along the river. As I recall, the play of light and shadow due to the river offers an eerie, otherworldly feel to it. Finally, we see Mud asleep, when he is called by Tom, his “foster-father-figure,” to come out and see the wide Gulf. We then realize that Mud has been saved by Tom, via the boat which Mud and the boys had been working on throughout the film. Now in these three scenes, we have death – a violent death – an otherworldly transition, and a scene of redemption and liberation.
Now Colin goes on to link this to Flannery O’Connor, which is well and good, but I gotta ask him a more basic plot question: did Mud really die?
We see Mud get shot as he dives in the river, but it is left open whether this is enough to kill him. The film shows the authorities searching for his body in the river, and has Ellis says he hopes he made it. It’s quite plausible that under the cover of darkness Tom saw where the wounded Mud swam to, and took him to the boat from there.
But that floating body scene, in which our glance up at the body is “muddy” and lasts no longer than a second, is nonetheless there.
So maybe Mud really did die. Indeed, if every frame of film is equally authoritative, he must have: if we freeze-frame that scene, it will be Mud’s face. In that case, the happy ending scene with he and Tom on the boat is really one of Mud entering into heaven, right?
Or, it is not the “authoritative ending” it is most obviously presented as, but is really just one of two “alternate endings,” and it is left up to the perceptive viewer, the one who realizes the importance of the scene Colin points to, to notice this and decide which ending is truer to human life. After all, if Tom and Mud really do escape, Ellis will be forced to choose which ending for Mud was more likely, at least for a long time. The film never gives us one of those “post-card-from-the-did-he-survive-character” moments. And if Mud really died, he will never know one way or the other.
Did Mud escape, moving into a new, in a sense “baptized” life free from America and his past, or, did he die, his corpse becoming another piece of trash drifting past Galen down the Mississippi? And these two alternate endings about worldly reality parallel a pair about ultimate reality: supposing he really did die, did he come home to heaven, or, is there no such thing, and death shows us what we ultimately will become, food for worms or fishes? (So there are three alternate endings, really, even if they boil down to two if oblivion makes all merely worldly happy endings pointless.)
But note, the point of view that sees Mud’s corpse is Galen’s, glancing up from the river-bottom. He has heard about the shoot-out at Ellis’s houseboat, and something passes above him that in a quick glance he thinks is Mud’s body. We should not take this glance as authoritative. I rather think writer/director Jeff Nichols has set it up so we have to choose, a choice that reflects that between materialism and faith. As I showed in my last post on MUD, Galen is the character with the particularly reductive view of love. I’d say that his guess about the shoot-out is that because Mud is probably the criminal type, the bad kind of trash the “River” brings to you, he probably met a bad end natural to his kind. Indeed, given his understandable worries about Neckbone’s association with him, he may hope that this is the case. And heaven isn’t even in mind—he holds the sensible reductive view of life, the one Tocqueville called “materialism.” His mindset is disposed both against the prospect of Mud’s amazing escape in natural life, and against the possibility of he, or anyone, supernaturally escaping the death of the body. This parallels the way his mindset is disposed against the reality of love. He has a kind of mystic openness to what the River might bring one, which keeps him an interesting character who might benefit from actually meeting Mud, but we have every reason to think his perception of Mud’s end is not the only one Nichols means to present.
But it cannot be ruled out, which is the main reason why that weird flash of a scene has to be there.
P.S. I suppose one could also think about Mud as undergoing a resurrection, but I don’t see him as a coherent Christ-figure. If resurrection is suggested, it would be the one of all believers, connected to the sacrament and symbolism of baptism.