Nichols (left) with Matthew McConaughey on the set of Mud, 2012
Shotgun Stories, Taking Shelter, Mud: Jeff Nichols's Trilogy ... Harut Akopyan from Offscreen, July 2013
How often have we heard “It’s all about the Father-Son relationship?” It seems as though director Jeff Nichols has made not one, but three films around this subject. However, with a deeper analysis, we see a trajectory that takes place between his freshmen Shotgun Stories (Nichols, 2007), to the sophomore, Take Shelter (Nichols, 2011), and finally his latest and some might say senior film, Mud (Nichols, 2012). With this “trilogy,” one might feel as though Jeff Nicholas the auteur has found himself. The modern family and its foundations are crumbling in Shotgun Stories, and especially in Take Shelter, evolving into a postmodern family with its lack of tradition and loss of innocence. Specifically in Mud, it is about where, how, and “if” the modern father fits into the family unit dynamic. The family unit can be further broken down and analyzed from the perspective of the men, women, fathers, mothers, children, and finally the unifying theme, love; which traditionally has been the thing that keeps the family unit together. In Shotgun Stories, Sonny (Michael Shannon, who stars in all three films) or Son (what he actually goes by in the film), is just beginning to get a grasp of what constitutes the family and his place within it. In Take Shelter, Michael Shannon’s character, Curtis, might have found the perfect balance within the family unit and for all intents and purposes, seems to have a loving family. Yet, there are forces outside of his control (and ironically inside his mind) which might be the obstacle that keeps his family from being together. In Mud, we see the family having fought through their inner demons and now being broken apart not just from nature’s harshest realities but also the economy and the world at large.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is our teenage hero in Mud, doing everything in his power to keep his family together. In Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), Ellis finds the fantasy of the loving parents who will stop at nothing, even at the act of committing murder, for the sake of love. Having just begun to grasp what falling in love means, Ellis must deal with his own parents falling out of love. When confronted by Ellis about why he is hiding from the police, Mud explains that he had to kill a man who was beating on Juniper. Ellis immediately forgives this gruesome act of revenge and rhetorically asks “you did it for her…to protect her?” Mud looks at him and says, “What do you think?” Similarly, in Shotgun Stories, love is all about protecting your family, often by being the aggressor. We begin with three slacker brothers who find out from their deadbeat mom that their absentee father has died, a father who had long since left them, stopped drinking, and started a new family. Like his first family, his offspring are all boys, the difference being that the sons from the second marriage love him while his children from the first family, Son and his brothers, absolutely hate him. Barging in on the funeral with his brothers, Son asks if he can say something before they bury the old man. The second wife allows it. Son’s parting words to his father are damning: “Just cause he stopped drinking, became a Christian, had a new life with a new family, doesn’t make him different. He is the same man who ran out on us and left us to be raised by a hateful woman. Made like we were never born and that’s what he’s answering for here today.” In this version of events, the family unit is unhealthy and fueled by anger. Just as the boys are embarking on their own lives and beginning to start their own families, their past comes back in full swing, threatening their family harmony. Mark (Travis Smith), the oldest son from the second marriage, vows to get revenge and a Shakespearean game of chicken begins between the two warring families until the final tragedy strikes. However, not all of the brothers seek to protect their families in this violent way. The other brother, Cleamon (Michael Abbot Jr.) understands the stakes and at first avoids conflict and warns his hot head brother that “we have responsibilities. I have two kids.” We also find out that their mother is sick and that the boys are taking care of her. The second family appears to be in good standing with their community. At a closer look however, we see that they too are all inflicted with unhealthy pride and an attachment to their father’s name.
In Take Shelter, Curtis (Michael Shannon) is trying to protect his family from a prophetic super storm by building –to the detriment of his family’s economic stability– a high tech Shelter that can sustain his family for several weeks. In this case, the violent breakup seems to be threatened more by his mental makeup than a phenomenon that may or may not take place. In Mud, even Neckbone’s (Jacob Loffland) uncle, Galen (Michael Shannon) is trying to protect the remnants of whatever is left of their family. Earlier in the film, Neckbone tells Mud that he’s never met his parents. Although Galen is not his father and freely brings women over to sleep with, while Neckbone waits outside of their trailer, his relationship with Neckbone seems much healthier than Ellis’s relationship with his father. Galen keeps a healthy distance from the boys (maybe for self reliance?). When he discovers they might be in trouble, he invites Ellis to his house, looming over him on the couch as he tries to explain things in his own way. He knows Neckbone looks up to Ellis and is trying to protect him; Galen tries to give a few words of advice. Although he seemingly doesn’t know about Mud, his wise words seem dead-on: “This River brings a lot of trash in. You have to know what to keep and what’s worth letting go.“ He continues to advise Ellis about girls and tells him that if one lets go of you, just find a new one. “There are plenty of new fish in the sea.” Later when Neckbone asks what his uncle was saying, Ellis says he didn’t understand. It seems as though fathers (and father figures) and their sons are destined not to understand one another.
Are the father’s in all three films mentally fit to be fathers? Is the role of the traditional father a healthy one? Has the ever changing reality of life reached a point where a need to forgo the traditional family dynamic is an option? In this respect the ‘trilogy’ seems to embark on a trajectory that is still taking place from the modern to the postmodern. The foundational qualities that inform the “role” of the father is examined and ultimately broken down in each film. In Mud (where this theme is most dominant) there is Ellis’s cold father, Senior (Ray McKinnon); and there is Mud as the adventurous fantasy Father. Tom (Sam Shepard), the sterile old neighbor is another type of father. And finally, the old man King (Joe Don Baker), who comes to seek revenge for his son’s death. When Ellis tells Mud about the brother and father of the man that Mud killed having come to town to seek revenge, Mud warns Ellis to stay away from the old man if he ever sees him. Once again, the father is made into a beast-like figure and best portrayed when King and his son, Carver (Paul Sparks), kneel down in prayer with their group of bounty hunters as they embark on a mission to assassinate Mud.
All of these fathers seem to lack the emotional depth to maintain a healthy father-child relationship and they are all either trying to keep a dying family together or are making amends for an already dead one. In Take Shelter, Curtis at first appears to be a healthy father. His daughter is hearing-impaired, but from the look of things, her disability is temporary, much like the temporary harmony that exists within the family. His friend, Dewert (Shea Whigham) is also a hard working father, who often confesses to Curtis about his sexual troubles with his wife on those seldom heavily drunken nights. Later on when it is revealed that Curtis is struggling psychologically, his daughter’s ASL teacher shows the parents and the kids how to sign “father” on their forehead. When Curtis arrives late to the parent-teacher conference his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) is angry and signs, “father stinks” on his forehead. As Curtis’s dreams become more real and he begins to lose his grip on reality, he wakes up one night from a nightmare, having wet his bed. In this world, this is the ultimate emasculation of the man (and father). When Samantha tries to approach him, he yells at her to stay away, fearing that she would see his weakness. She retaliates with, “I’m sorry you’re sick. But drop the attitude.” Immediately in the next scene, Curtis gets several books from the library about mental illness. He later admits to the psychologist that his dad raised him after his mother fell mentally ill and left the family (soon after which his father died). Even Mud, the fantasy father who is incapable of looking out for Ellis, involves him in his dangerous fugitive situation. Mud’s hands are always muddy and at some point he shakes Ellis’s palm by rubbing it in mud, like some kind of blood brother ritual.
In the opening scene of Shotgun Stories, Son stands shirtless, looking into his empty bedroom drawers, a clear indication of a traditional house without a woman. We discover that Son had an argument with his wife Annie (Glenda Pannell), who then left with their boy. At the root of his spousal problems are Son’s gambling habit and the fact that his brother, Kid (Barlow Jacobs), lives in a tent on their front lawn. With the wife gone Son invites his brother to come back into the house. Without women in their lives, most of the young men in this film seem to lead aimless and shiftless lives. Both of his brothers lack a job and a place to live. Boy Hayes (Douglas Ligan), the middle of the three brothers, lives in his van and seems to be preoccupied with his broken radio and coaching a youth basketball team that barely exists. We often see him gathering a half hearted group of kids and then just letting them play. At one point, he makes them shoot layups and says “fundamentals boys, fundamentals.” The irony being that he lacks the fundamentals of life. He is often seen planning a playbook for an entire team, masterfully revealed in wide-shots where he is framed alone on the basketball court. If the way they lead their lives isn’t enough, their nicknames (Son, Kid, and Boy) is a clear indication that they have not yet gained the respect of their elders.
But it’s not just them. Most of the men in the town are slackers. When we first meet Shampoo (G. Allan Wilkins), the neighborhood gossip, Kid asks him about the bandages around his eyes and arms, he replies incoherently, “I had an accident. My place caught fire. The cops are all over it. I’m sure they have plenty of evidence.” Later when Kid’s girlfriend, Cheryl (Coley Conpany) finds out who Kid was talking to, she says “I had biology class with him. He used to inhale the formaldehyde.” Of the three brothers, Son is the only one who bears some responsibility: a steady but financially insufficient part-time job. Midway through the film while Son and his brothers are lounging about fishing in the local lake, Annie drops off their boy, Carter (Cole Hendrixon) to spend time with dad and his uncles. She has a packed lunch for all of them, labeled “for my boys.” Son feels guilty, admitting to his brother that he could find a better job and take better care of his family.
Son falls short of doing much of anything. The men across these three films have lost not just patriarchal power in the family, but a sense of dignity in society at large. Most of the women can take care of themselves without the so called “bread winner.” In Mud, Ellis’s mom, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulsen) owns their home and is planning on leaving his father. In Take Shelter, Samantha depends on Curtis for their daughter’s surgery procedure that his job’s health insurance would cover. However, she is unaware that Curtis is going through an emotional and mental turmoil and often chastises him for missing appointments. She has to make up for their feeble income by running a side business of sewing table cloth and knick knacks and selling them for extra cash. Although Curtis has a better job than Son or Ellis’s father, he is not comfortable by any means. The only people in these films who seem to be both hard working and have a more comfortable lifestyle, affording out of town school for one their boys, are Son’s half brothers in Shotgun Stories. Yet, in this case, their mother has fallen ill and is powerless. We know that Cleamon has a family and we see his two boys but we never see any other women other than their own mother. It seems as if when the men are in control of their families, the women hardly exist. In the first of two climaxes that take place in Take Shelter, the strength of his female counterpart temporarily saves Curtis from self destruction. After hiding out in the shelter over night, the storm ends. Samantha and their daughter want to go outside but Curtis is convinced that the mighty storm hasn’t ended. She tells him, “I love you very much. Please open the door.” He begins sobbing, “I’m sorry, I can’t,” and gives her the keys. In an act of complete selflessness, Samantha tells him that he has to open it himself because if he doesn’t, nothing will change. The will to keep the family dynamic together has transferred itself into Samantha. “This is what it means to stay with us,” she assures him. When he finally opens it and realizes that it was a false alarm, it is a breaking point and he has finally assumed the role of the mentally sick father who is no longer in control of his family. They have to go to town to see a reliable psychiatrist and he has to live with medication for the rest of his life.
The death of the modern family dynamic is also reflected through the exterior landscape and the harsh realities of Mother Nature. In Take Shelter, we are never sure if Curtis’s violent meteorological illusions are real. Strong rains and hail come down at them as stranded people in the streets attack him and his daughter. In one of these violent episodes, a nod to Hitchcock is clearly displayed as a flood of dead birds start dropping onto Curtis with immense force as he runs for his life, carrying his daughter and making his way into the house. Nature’s harshness is displayed in not just the skies but also on the ground, with dangerous snakes always lurking around. Mud tells the boys that “God put snakes here to fear.” He tells them that he met Juniper when she saved him from a snake bite that should have killed him by rushing him to the hospital. In Shotgun Stories, Son’s dog being bitten by the snake is the trigger for the ultimate fight that leads to the death of the brothers from the two warring families. Finally, Ellis falling into the snake pit and being bitten is the circular trajectory of Mud’s story. In an interview with Indiewire in 2011, Nichols was asked if the end-of-the world scenario is a personal one. He answered by saying “there was this fear of loss and this anxiety of the world around me not hanging together. It was something I could wake up to, tasting in the morning.” 1
One of the very first scenes in Mud is Ellis and Neckbone steering their boat through the eerie flooded river. They are on forbidden and dangerous territory as they travel to a small island, having found a beautiful boat resting in between the large branch of a tree. It is a remnant of a powerful biblical-like flood. Perhaps this is what happened after the storm in Take Shelter? In Shotgun Stories, the violence has started from within the family and appears in one of the first scenes of the film. Gunshot wounds cover Son’s entire body, which is the source of speculation throughout most of the film. It has become a thing of legend and a topic of conversation among his coworkers and townsfolk as they take turns retelling the latest gossip on what they think happened to Son. One says he was caught with another man’s wife. One says he robbed a liquor store and was subsequently shot. Towards the end of the film when Son is hospitalized from a heavy beating, his wife is in shock and is looking for answers. Boy reveals to her that the scars are from a past incident when Son was protecting his family.
Son’s ravaged body is echoed by the harsh landscapes seen across all three films. In Shotgun Stories wheat fields are barely worked on or inhabited. The lawns and houses are all unkempt. Most of the men work in the fisheries and have a hard time finding fish. By the time we reach Mud, Ellis and his parents are the last remnants of a group of families who still live on a decaying makeshift houseboat. Most people have moved on to towns long ago. Earlier when Ellis asks about their neighbor, Tom, his Father replies, “Some people come to work. Some come to be left alone.” According to Mud, Tom is an angry old man who has lost the great love of his life and has now turned into a “lone wolf.” Thus, impotence leads those into this part of the town as well. Therefore, the houseboat community is now rendered impotent. When Ellis finds out that his parents are filing for a divorce and he has to move out, he fights against it and at one point yells at his mom, “I ain’t no townie!” He is trying to hold on to that house (and by extension the traditional family dynamic and his childhood). In other words, we are transitioning from the breakup of the modern family into the new “muddy” waters of the postmodern family.
In coming to terms with the new muddy waters we finally reach the consequence of the collective actions and realize that the children have been left alone in the forest, figuratively speaking, to come up with their own destinies and make their own mistakes. Nowhere is this better portrayed than in Mud where Ellis must experience love and love lost. Mud is ultimately a coming of age story and Ellis has to tread through the muddy waters by himself. When he transfers the breakup note from Mud to Juniper and sees she’s crying, he gets upset. He goes over to Mud and says, “You gave up on her and she gave up on you. You lied. You’re a liar. You never cared about her or us,” clearly blurring the lines between Mud, Juniper and his own parents. That’s when Ellis angrily leaves and falls into the snake pit and Mud has to rush him to the hospital on his bike through the forest and out the other end, taking the boat to the city.
One of the greatest films about children growing up to face the harsh realities of life is Lord of the Flies (1963), directed by Peter Brook, arguably one of the best theatre directors in history. He has previously spoken about children being complete and adults being incomplete. When questioned about childhood and a need to regain it as an adult, he answers this question in his famous book, In Between Silences: “This is this whole question of innocence and experience. A child up to a certain age is complete within the possibilities at that age, but he hasn’t fulfilled all the possibilities…But that doesn’t mean that your inner possibilities are fully realized…One can’t say that being like a child is really an aim for an adult, but at the same time being like the adult that we all are isn’t enough. That’s why so many writers have used the image of going through a forest; there’s the childhood and then there’s this going through a forest which often is very dark and tangled, and if it’s possible to get out of it, then a new form of what you can call innocence is found” (Brook, 64). 2 In this case, it is the innocence of adulthood. The innocence of thinking you are in power and ready to start a family, and then realizing that you are incapable. As a warning against growing up and a method of holding on to that innocence, Ellis is constantly reminded to watch himself throughout the film. His father warns him about women. Mud gives messages to Ellis to pass on to Juniper and tells him repeatedly, “Watch yourself, Ellis.” Later on, Juniper will repeat the same words. “Don’t get yourself involved with Mud,” Tom warns Ellis on another occasion. Even the man looking for Mud warns him.
Director Jeff Nichols has previously stated that he has been influenced by Oliver Twist and Dickens. Mud reminds us of Great Expectations, a timeless bildungsroman. In his Sundance interview, Nichols stated that “Mud has been developing in me for over a decade. But Mud is not immediate. Mud is timeless in a way. I really wanted to make a classic American story. And this is it. This is the closest I can come.” 3 Pip helps Magwitch and Ellis helps Mud. Magwitch comes back to repay Pip enormously and so does Mud to Ellis. Both Magwitch and Mud are in trouble with the law. If Magwitch and most other mentors in the greatest of stories die in the end, thus allowing for independence and self growth in our hero, Mud ends up surviving. At least that’s what it seems like when we seem him bandaged, with Tom in the boat. Whereas in Take Shelter the ending seems satisfying in that you are rooting for Curtis –but less true and more forced because the entire family ends up seeing the storm– we’re not sure of the same in Mud. Is Mud’s final destiny real or what Ellis has imagined for him? When Tom and Mud go up on deck, all they see ahead of them are the muddy waters. “You think he’s dead?” Neckbone asks Ellis when they’re alone. “I don’t know, I hope not,” Ellis says after some thought. He never finds out for sure. In both of these classics (Great Expectations and Mud), the loss of love is a major theme. Love has been the unifying theme of our modern family. “Love conquers all” is our modern epitaph. Does it still fit within the postmodern family? Can parents warn their children from the muddy territories of adulthood?
Recalling Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the most influential filmmakers of the postmodern era (though he surely wouldn’t think of himself this way), who thought that parents were incapable of giving direction because children were incapable of taking direction. Children are going to climb the tree and fall, to use a well known metaphor, and when children grow up and in turn have their own children, they too as parents will be incapable of stopping their children from climbing that tree. It seems as though love in Mud is very much like climbing that tree. In the end, there is a new girl in town and Ellis has an eye on her. Now divorced, his father takes him back to his mother’s and tells him that he still loves him very much and Ellis finally understands. This is the essence of characters who have found themselves in unchartered territories; fathers and sons who will still continue to try being fathers and sons. Going back to the last scene of Nichols’s first film, Shotgun Stories, we see Sonny, Boy, and Sonny’s son, Carter, sitting on their porch, looking ahead with an unknown future in the midst, hoping that this time around, it will be different.
- Smith, Nigel M.(2011) ‘INTERVIEW: Take Shelter Director Jeff Nichols on How to Make an Indie Epic’ INDIEWIRE (2013) ↩
- Brook, Peter and Moffit, Dale (ed.) Between Two Silences; Talking With Peter Brook (Dallas, Tex. Southern Methodist University Press, 1999) 64-65 ↩
- Fragoso, Sam (2013) ‘INTERVIEW: DIRECTOR JEFF NICHOLS TALKS MUD, AMERICAN CLASSICS, DRAWING FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCES, THE FUTURE AND THE IDENTITY OF FILM CRITICISM’ Moviemessanine.com. (2013) ↩