Mud (2012), written by Jeff Nichols, follows the story of Ellis, a fourteen-year-old boy, in rural Arkansas. Let’s jump into the analysis.
- Draft Read: Shooting Script – September 16, 2011
- Type: Shooting
- Page Count: 132
- Reading Speed: Medium
- Setting(s): Rural Arkansas, Mississippi river
- Plot Structure: Linear, Spanning multiple days
- Genre(s): Coming-of-Age, Love
- Theme(s): Love, Marriage, Divorce, Family dynamics, Friendship, Loyalty, Religion (Spiritual)
- Protagonist Change: Significant
Where to start with a screenplay like Mud. It’s got a lot going on, but its messages, like many coming-of-age stories, are simple. Mud’s essentially a coming-of-age story about the power of love and family seen through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old.
The script, at 132 pages, isn’t as easy or quick to read as one would expect. There are slow parts and somewhat convoluted sequences. This is not necessarily an issue if you are a director writing your own script, which is the case here.
But Mud does feel somewhat formulaic. Many scenes seem to follow the standard screenwriting advice: Have each character have their own conversation and merge them. In other words, what is being said in many of the scenes does not matter. It is the underlying message that one needs to get out of it.
Last to note, there is mention on Wikipedia (unfortunately no linkable primary source) about Mud being inspired by Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. That’s on the money. This screenplay feels like a modern-day story with the 19th-century characters.
Mud excels at describing life on the bayou. Is it factually accurate? No idea, because I’ve never been to the Mississippi, but it’s convincing. Why? Because images of the scenery are vividly described through strong action lines.
Mud also delivers on sharing a story through the POV of a fourteen-year-old. I should know because I was one only 12 years ago… Okay, but again the dialogue, mannerisms, actions, etc. feels like they could have come from a teenager. And that’s something some scripts (ex. Nerve (2016)) struggle to accomplish.
What gives Ellis agency? Why does he help Mud? The answer is the connection between the subplots: love (Ellis notes the importance of love on Page 43). And you definitely can’t hurry it, or this screenplay would be about 50 pages shorter. Bad joke, I know. But the reason Ellis helps Mud is because he wants his parent’s marriage to stay together. And that also leads Ellis to pursue May Pearl. It’s actually really clever how the stories tie into each other.
Neckbone, Ellis’ friend, a bit of a tricky character to analyze. He has too much screen time to have no character arc, but nothing much happens to him. Sure, he’s kinda sorta materialistic, agreeing to help out in exchange for Mud’s gun, but that’s a minor prize for the amount of work he puts in, and the materialistic mentality is mighty weak compared to Ellis’.
Does the writer try to buy time in Act 2 with so much back-and-forth? On Page 30, Ellis asks May Pearl for her phone number, but instead of just giving it to him, she says: “If you can find my phone number, you should call it.” At least they didn’t draw the timeless art of seduction over an entire movie (ex. Call Me by Your Name (2017)).
There’s an odd fever dream sequence in Act 3 where Ellis dreams he is on a boat in a lake of snakes. I’ve never quite understood this abstract tactic and I think it is an especially odd placement so deep in Act 3. Another script that uses the one-off dream scene is Desperate Hours (2011).
The final shootout is convoluted. Likewise, the entire climax is drawn-out into a few different high-intensity moments and the shootout is very difficult to visualize. For example, there’s a reference to two sliding doors on Page 119, yet I can’t recall them being mentioned earlier in the screenplay, and certainly cannot picture where they are in relation to the houseboat rooms.
The plot has many levels. On the surface, it’s about a trade: Helping Mud reunite with his lover so that the boys can get a boat and gun. But deeper down it’s about saving a marriage and bringing two lovers together (or better said, getting them to realize they are not compatible).
What great characters. Mud is the semi-spiritual honest bad guy that’s actually pretty dependable. Ellis and Neckbone are clearly so well thought out that it would be a disservice to limit their description to a sentence or two. Perhaps the only characters who felt underdeveloped were the women, such as the girl Ellis like, May Pearl, and Ellis’ mom, Mary Lee, which may be intentional as this script is from the POV of a young boy.
Dialogue & Pacing
Here’s a quote from Page 73 where Mud explains the backstory of Tom, one of Ellis’ neighbors:
She was pregnant with a little boy, but the birth got the better of ’em. They didn’t make it. Tom’s been alone ever since. Lone wolf.
What’s the real meaning of this quote. Is it really about Ellis’ neighbor? I don’t think so. Let’s see what comes after:
Mud has begun walking back to the treeline. Ellis stays.
I gotta go help my dad.
Many lines of dialogue are like this: The lines intended message is meant for use by Ellis in another situation. Using frequent double entendres is a symbolic way of writing, one that takes focus by the reader/viewer, although becomes easier to follow when you realize it’s so commonly used in this screenplay.
The pacing builds to Act 3, although the climax is not typical. There’s a snake bite sequence in which Mud rushes Ellis to the hospital, which seems like the climax, but isn’t. There’s a shootout, which doesn’t quite feel like the Climax as Mud gets away, but it is. Then there’s a scene where Mud is seen by Galen floating in the river, which could be the climax, but definitely isn’t.
Here’s the snakebite scene:
And a classic YouTube comment: Fun fact: the stuntman for this scene is a girl, her name is Lauren, I used to work with her at UPS
Coming-of-Age movies should be impactful, and I think Mud more-or-less delivers. It doesn’t necessarily feel unique (Just one example: The Kings of Summer (2013) has many of the same beats), and was written at roughly the same time), and I think that limits its overall influence.
But it does have unique characters and has easily epathizable (lets make that a word) themes, whether you are a teenager going through a breakup or seeing your parents get divorced. Again, its overall message feels somewhat vanilla, but it certainly is a strong story with relatable characters.
Best Part of The Script
I think the motorcycle scene is a great piece of cinematography (see above). It’s described in perfect detail in the script.