Mud: Chekhovian Storytelling at Its Most Detrimentally Obvious

Saw Mud. On the whole well worth watching, but the ending was disappointing for me. More than that, the way the end came about was so obviously foreshadowed as to be obnoxious, and gave me a different perspective on storyboarding. Before I get into that essay, however, a quick overview of the film.

In case you don’t know the premise (which I assume is based on a Primus song, making it even more badass from the inception):

The Good: Fabulous directing that matches what he did in Take Shelter. Acting jobs that to a (wo)man lived up the hype being made about them. The movie was a wrenchingly realistic depiction of life in the rural South–both my husband and I walked out feeling like we had just watched a movie based on an alternate reality of our own childhoods–unlike, for example, Beautiful Creatures (which I am still convinced was written, cast, and directed by people who have never even been to the South except for helicoptering in to a few set locations that were first scoured of actual local inhabitants). The premise was super-interesting and well executed until the final sequence of events. And, finally, the lead boy reminded me so much of my husband at that age based on pictures and the stories I’ve heard that he was almost painfully sentimental to watch. (The boy’s look and attitude reminded him of himself, too, so this was not just me.)

Imagine him all grown up, college-educated and come back to his blue-collar-family roots. <3

Imagine him all grown up, college-educated and come back to his blue-collar-family roots. ❤

The Disappointing: The climax seemed…out of step with the rest of the film. ***Spoilers through the rest of this column. Read on at your own risk***

The movie had been tense, funny, realistic throughout, from the boys’ personal conflicts to their growing friendship with Mud and obsession with helping him out to the adults who know or guess what is going on. The fact that people were on a manhunt for Mud, vigilante style, complete with corrupt law enforcement to turn a blind eye, was not what bothered me–that fit the set-up, it felt right. The problem came in how that man-hunt wound up as a no-knock raid cum shoot-out with a house-boat family. The whole scene came up suddenly, and felt rushed and poorly conceived. What had been a drama suddenly became a shoot-em-up action flick, and the shift did not work. Not for me. It felt unrealistic and kind of lazy, like the script writer really wanted an “explosive” ending but couldn’t think of anything more creative, nor did he have the courage to scrap the writing-school advice about building to a conflagration and make an entirely anticlimactic ending, where when the boy recovers from his snakebite Mud and the boat are gone, but so are the vigilantes, and he never really knows what happens. Narratively frustrating, perhaps, but more realistic and more tantalizing for the question left dangling at the end. Like the boy, we would always, always wonder. Instead we got a cheap shoot-out saved by the crazy old sniper across the river, in which Mud is fatally (or IS he?) shot and falls into the river, never to be seen again, in an attempt to create the same sort of ambiguity for the boy. BUT in an even worse piece of cowardice, the filmmakers added an epilogue in which we are shown that the crazy old man took the boat…and managed to rescue and rescucitate Mud.

My problem with this movie’s ending sequence is that it was obviously written with the “Chekhov’s Gun” principle uppermost in mind, and it derails the whole movie for me a little. This dissatisfaction with a story that tied everything together was unexpected; as a writer, I certainly subscribe to Aristotle’s aesthetic that the end of a story should be the natural sum of the events and characters involved, so theoretically I ought to like a story with no fat. One of my favorite movies of all time is Lucky Number Slevin, and if ever there was a film where every single scene of the beginning and middle comes back into play at the end, that one is it.

However, Mud seemed much more a conscious construction of plot based on those storytelling principles than it did a natural sum of its parts. It felt really MFA-thesis tight, worked over and worked over again until every minute detail wove back into the overall story. The problem was, it was too obvious about it. The first time I saw the pit of water moccasins, I wondered if someone would fall into it; the second time I saw it, I knew. Once is an interesting detail to ground the story in a particular place, but twice is foreshadowing. The problem is that you don’t actually need the second showing in order for the snakebite to be foreshadowed. The second look just made it obvious. I’d have liked better if no one got bitten and the snakes were a red herring.

With the old man – the second he was rumored to be an ex-CIA assassin, his intervention at the end was set up. No red herring there, either. When the boy balks at stealing a motor, it became no surprise that taking the motor from the junkyard became how he got caught. When his best friend’s crazy uncle invents a diving apparatus with lights on it, the ending where he sees Mud’s body floating past him along the riverbottom is set up. Everything folded back in…and that made all of those little moments feel like story building moments, not place-building moments.

Maybe that distinction is actually the real problem. As a movie, Mud is about a place and time as much as it is about a story or a set of characters. The writer decided to combine the elements of place with the elements of the story, and it made both less effective.

I have always liked the Chekhov quote about the gun in the first act, but I am realizing that I disagree with it. Sometimes you need to include details simply to set the time and the place. They don’t have to come back into the story. Sometimes you want to show a pit full of writhing moccasins just to remind the audience that this place is not tame, that danger lurks from the world of nature as much as from the world of men. Sometimes you need a crazy oyster-diving-apparatus-inventing uncle just for comic relief and a glimpse of the ingenuity of the boys’ family lives, not so that you have a pre-planted witness to the ending. Sometimes you want a gun on the mantel simply because the character would own a gun, not because the story needs it to fire.

I do think the details of place and props used should be chosen with intention, but revelation is just as important as action. One of the best ways to show and not tell, after all, is to have your protagonist see a gun in a man’s pants rather than describe the man directly as dangerous.

There was a lot that Mud did right, and I know that my complaints are hyper-critical. That is the danger of making something that could have been brilliant – the places where it fell short become even more glaring. I am glad that I saw the film for many aesthetic and cultural reasons, but the biggest impact this movie had on me was as a writer, casting doubt on one of the most hallowed of current storytelling principles. At last I begin to understand what “over-plotted” looks like….




Filed under Film, Writing

4 responses to “Mud: Chekhovian Storytelling at Its Most Detrimentally Obvious

  1. ABE

    I’m sorry, but it seems every movie with Matthew McConaughey I’ve seen ends in the same way – something horribly flashy at the end and a feeling of disappointment in my gut. Sahara, anyone?

    I won’t watch this one – except for the set and people, since you like them – and I’ll probably have the same reaction if I do: could they be more obvious?

    If you like Matthew, I apologize – but I will still feel that way. Even the Lincoln Lawyer had that feel: Huh? at the end. I kept waiting for something to close out the story.

    • I enjoy Mattay but I don’t really hold any actors sacrosacnt, so no offense taken and no need to apologize for an opinion. Everybody makes stinkers sometimes, and he has done plenty of cheap Hollywood roles to make money. And everyone’s mileage will vary on a story like this. Obviously a lot of people really responded to it (or, for some reason, are afraid not to like it the way critics were all afraid not to like Brokeback Mountain even though it was not an objectively good movie).

      I disagree with you on Lincoln Lawyer. I loved that movie, have watched it several times since I saw it originally and enjoy it every single time. Perhaps it is because civil liberties and the over-criminalization of society are issues I am passionate about, and that movie really highlighted some of the problems with the justice system. I find the ending to be quite satisfying – the way it folded the previous elements back in worked better for me.

      If you are interested in indie films and have an appreciation of southern culture, this is a good movie to catch maybe as a rental. I really did enjoy it. I just…had a different story in mind by the end, and this time, I liked mine better. 🙂

  2. I too walked out of the film with Chekov on my mind as well, but the gun on the wall ADDED to my enjoyment of Mud, rather than detracting from it. From the instant I saw that pit of moccasins, I was gripping my consort’s hand every time anyone walked by it because I knew someone was going to fall in at some point. If they hadn’t, I’d have been furious. And as the “sniper” (Sheppard) took aim near the end, I suddenly remembered his almost careless target-shooting of water moccasins in his first scene, and it was perfect. I enjoyed the movie all the way through, in part because some of the plot was so deliberate, while other parts (relationships) were not. I think the positives (cinematography, sense of place, character development, performances by everyone especially the kids), far far outweigh any quibbles about the plot structure. Just my opinion. 🙂 Thanks for writing this, though: as a writer, it made me think about the role of the gun on the wall in Act 1 (whether it should be so obvious that everyone sees it, or very subtle).

    • Hi Mary,

      I think we are in agreement on most things. The movie was very well done and worth the viewing, regardless of quibbles. And you bring up an excellent point – taste varies on things like foreshadowing and the sewing up of loose ends. I am reminded of my reaction to the movie The Departed vs. a friend’s: I couldn’t stand the love triangle, and that was her favorite part. So obviously to some extent plot elements are subjective, too! I think your reaction to my reaction sums up my reaction perfectly. Regardless of like/dislike of this particular story, what was important to me was the new lens it gave me to look at my stories through.

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