Firmly rooted in the Southern literary tradition of writers from Mark Twain to mystery novelist James Lee Burke, Mud is the engaging and atmospheric third feature from writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter). With its story of two teenage boys who discover a mysterious drifter named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) hiding on a remote island on the Mississippi River, the film far exceeds what usually passes for a coming-of-age story in Hollywood. Mud offers a soulful meditation on the nature of love disguised as a Southern Gothic crime thriller, all told from a distinctly male point of view. A mythic quality carries it through the rough spots even when it turns out to be a bit more conventional (and long-winded) than it might have been.
Nichols, an Arkansas native, mounted the first large-scale film production in that state's history, and the result is a setting that looks both fresh and familiar while supporting the story's uniquely Southern vibe. It's hard to imagine anyone but McConaughey in the title role, oozing earthiness and authenticity while using his low-key charisma to win over Ellis (Tye Sheridan), the smarter and more troubled of the two teens, and enlist the boys in his struggle to reconnect with the absent Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Even Witherspoon is believable, a few extra pounds keeping her from looking like a movie star. Her careless character may not be the ideal object of devotion, but she does provide an object lesson on the true price of love. — KEN KORMAN