Jeff Nichol’s Mud is another film that depicts a relationship between a father, Tom, and a son, Ellis. What is the relationship between Tom and Ellis like? What can we learn from them as models of the father-son relationship? How might that apply to our own lives and relationships? If the father-son adventure is primarily concerned with the relationship between fathers and sons, what lessons can we learn from this film as we pursue this adventure together?
Reader, please be warned. This article contains spoilers.
Who is the father?
Tom, played by Sam Shepard, lives and works on the Arkansas River. He sells and delivers his catch of fish to local businesses and individuals. Tom expects his son Ellis, played by Tye Sheridan, to help with these deliveries. In one scene, Tom tells Ellis that he works him hard because life is work. This is our first direct glimpse into the father’s point of view, as he himself would define it.
We also know that there is trouble in Tom’s marriage to Ellis’s mother Mary Lee, played by Sarah Paulson. Mary Lee voices her concerns in the opening scene, but Tom is unwilling to respond to her. Later, Tom tells Ellis that he loves him and talks with him about how Mary Lee is thinking about splitting up. Since Tom’s houseboat is in Mary Lee’s name, the houseboat, and so Tom’s livelihood, would be taken from him if they got a divorce. Ellis is upset by this, but more so because his father and mother do not seem to love one another anymore. Tom tells Ellis that he has let Ellis down. One gathers that he feels responsible for the pain he has caused his son, and this deeply hurts him.
Who is the son?
Ellis’s anger over his parent’s situation seems partially about a belief that his father is lying down, and not fighting hard enough for his family or for what is his. The whole situation is unfair, especially that his family is being torn apart. Tom and Mary Lee’s marital strife troubles Ellis so much that he begins to believe in love as an ideal. He is hurt and feels wronged by the seeming lack of love in his parents relationship. Ellis begins to believe that love ought to work out at all costs because it feels painfully wrong and unfair when it does not work out.
It seems that Ellis will do anything for his high ideal about love. He tries a love relationship himself with a girl who is older than him and in a higher grade. Although things seem to go well at first, the relationship ends badly. Ellis discovers the young girl with another boy from school and he loses control. He tries to fight the boy but this only amounts to the girl utterly rejecting and humiliating him in front of all her friends. Love has failed Ellis once again.
Ellis’s ideal about love is probably why Mud, a drifter played by Matthew McConaughey, is able to convince him to do just about anything, and why Ellis keeps returning to help Mud. Ellis may, because of his belief in love, feel that Mud’s relationship with Juniper, Reese Witherspoon, should work out as much as Mud believes it should. Ellis goes to great extremes to help Mud and Juniper whose relationship, in the end, does not work out either and remains distant and broken. Still, all of this shows what Ellis is willing to do because he believes in his conviction about love so strongly, which is likely brought on by the prospect of his parents divorce.
How does all this shake out?
Through a series of events, Ellis is bitten by a deadly snake and Mud saves his life by delivering him to the hospital in the knick of time. Later Ellis wakes up in his own bed with both his mother and father caring for him. It would seem that the crisis over Ellis’s life has brought his parents back together, at least temporarily, and love, now in a stable way, seems to have been mercifully restored to Ellis.
What can we learn about the father-son relationship?
Ellis’s adventure begins because there is crisis in his home. There is a conflict in his relationship with his father and his mother, even though there is love. Tom told Ellis that he loved him, but this was not enough for Ellis. Ellis wanted love that was unbroken and stable and this could only be a reality when his mother and father were restored to one another, or at least willing to try again for that. We might say that the context and environment for love was as important to Ellis as the love itself.
No matter how hard or how many times Ellis fought for love, either his own love or someone else’s, it never really worked out. Ultimately, Ellis’s family was restored to a better state due to the crisis over Ellis’s life. What is it about a crisis that brings people together? Perhaps, it is that crisis has a way of removing lesser concerns, money, time, what we think is right, or whatever else. Crisis has a way of leveling all of those things and creating its own time and space, which forces us to deal with what is most important, family in this case.
It is the time and space created by crisis that seems relevant. It can be difficult to find the time and space to deal with what matters most and give it the attention it deserves. Perhaps this was part of the Tom’s difficulty. His life and relationships are falling apart, but it takes all his energy just to keep things afloat (literally). With Ellis and Tom, it took a crisis to shake things up so that things of lesser importance could fall away and the relationship could be restored.
We don’t have to wait for a crisis to help us deal with the most important relationships in our lives, but finding the right time and space to properly address things can be a challenge. Christ in the Rockies seeks to give fathers and sons the tools, time, and space, to deal with these issues, to bring to the surface and affirm what ought to be affirmed. Many times this is a step toward restoring a broken relationship. If you would like more information about the father-son adventure opportunities with Christ in the Rockies, please feel free to contact us. We can be reached through the contact info on the bottom of our homepage at christintherockies.org. We would love to hear from you!