Jeff Nichols, along with Ramin Bahrani, is the best director today capturing the spirit of down-south Americana values. His third feature “Mud” follows this tradition by showing just how deeply rooted all his characters are, each with their own deep-seeded histories that guide the film through otherwise rough waters.

Deep in the rivers of Arkansas, two boys named Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan of “The Tree of Life” and debut performer Jacob Lofland) come across an island, a boat stuck in a tree and a drifter named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) calling it his home. These kids have hard faces and journey out into the open fully aware, yet still wary, of the danger. So when Mud appears and asks for their help, they act on instinct and ingrained country wisdom.

Mud’s a murderer on the lam with only a shirt and a pistol to his name. He explains to the boys that he killed a man trying to defend the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). The two plan to escape together, but Juniper is aimless, uncertain and faced with her own danger.

It’s a thriller in this way, one that turns a bit too Hollywood near the end for its own good, but the intricate subtext surrounding the livelihood of Ellis is what makes “Mud” feel so at home.

Here’s a kid with a built-in nature. Raised on a boat as a fisherman on the river, he’s got no culture but animal intuition and street smarts. One of his more defining moments that demonstrates his instinctive, man-of-action mentality is when a high school senior is harassing a girl in a parking lot. Ellis crosses the street and plants a shiner on the kid, winning himself a date and later a kiss.

We come to realize that Ellis has a noble perception of love, one that isn’t echoed in his separating parents (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon), in Neckbone’s dirtbag uncle (Michael Shannon) or even in his own escapades. Mud however loves Juniper deeply, or claims to, and there’s palpable tension in seeing just how far Ellis’s pursuit of this love will take him.

Nichols places the whole film in soft Earth tones. In all three of his films, he’s been able to define a classical, homemade, rustic look without making it look a cliché dusty brown. But beyond that, what makes “Mud” distinctive is this rural affinity. Characters harbor family vengeance, everyone holds deep respect for their elders and hanging at the Piggly Wiggly or selling fish at the motel is a natural facet of life.

Nichols is also an expert vessel for actors. In “Take Shelter,” Nichols led Shannon to his most fiery and subdued performance in a career filled with them, and here, he gives McConaughey yet another high point in his recent hot streak. Talking in parables and always maintaining a sense of danger and mystery, it’s interesting to see that McConaughey can stretch himself in quieter ways. Watch how easily he asserts his authority over Ellis and Neckbone when he explains that you can call him homeless, but not a bum.

Witherspoon, Shannon, Paul Sparks and Sam Shepard all get to do some delicious scenery chewing as well, each sporting small roles but each doing their part to color this small town with a vibrant history.

Some critics have been unfair to the movie’s ending, a noisy, unexpected, but maybe inevitable climax that feels a bit too convenient. But “Mud” feels like a movie that’s been lived-in. Like the elders across the way or the islands on the river, this is a film that has true secrets and wisdom to impart.

3 ½ stars


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