Matthew McConaughey’s ‘Mud’ Is 2013’s First Truly Great Film

Writer/director Jeff Nichols is a bit of a trickster. His previous film, Take Shelter, kept his audience off-balance by weaving an apocalyptic tale with personal and psychological intensity — yet never giving us quite enough information to know exactly how dire the events onscreen truly were. His latest effort, Mud, also pulls a fast one: it seems, for most of its running time, to be a shambling, episodic Southern slice of life, filled with colorful characters and half-necessary sidebars. But he’s neither that casual nor that sloppy; this is a powerful, emotional story where every thread pulls tight, and counts.

In its opening scenes, it’s a riff on the old Boys’ Adventure stories, like a Hardy Boys book or something. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) have discovered an island within a motorboat ride’s distance from their homes, and on that island, they’ve found a boat in a tree. Even more strangely, the boat is apparently occupied. The squatter introduces himself as Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a sunbaked drifter with a quiet drawl and a cigarette between his teeth. He’s hiding out there, he explains, because some people are looking for him, and he’s supposed to meet up with his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) in a few days. He asks his new friends for some help.

Neckbone (who has, in Mud’s words, “a heck of a good handle”) is reluctant, calling him a bum. Mud sets him straight: Neckbone can call him a hobo (“because a hobo’ll work for his living”), or homeless, “but you call me a bum again, and I’m gonna teach you somethin’ about respect your daddy never did.” McConaughey, continuing his string of improbably impressive performances, is just about flawless here. He speaks calmly, with consideration and evenness, the kind of guy who can hide everything about himself while seeming completely open, so it’s not a surprise when we find out he’s on the run for killing a man. “Y’all don’t need to hear about it,” he assures the boys. “I need to hear about it,” Ellis replies quietly.

But Mud’s story isn’t the only one Nichols tells here. Ellis’s parents are splitting up, a separation that seems to occur with a sad inevitability, and Nichols contrasts the determination of his mother (Sara Paulson) with the quiet anger of his father (Ray McKinnon, the talented creator of Rectify) — a man who has been beaten down (or beaten himself down) to a point of giving up. Those scenes capture the powerlessness of adolescence, of knowing something bad is happening in the next room, but not being able to do a damn thing about it. There’s also a girl named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) whom Ellis is sweet on, and in a short but evocative scene, Nichols vividly conjures the sweet awkwardness of young dating, before you really even know how to talk to each other.

Also lurking on the edge of the frame are Neck’s freewheeling scuba diver uncle (via a cameo from the scene-stealing Michael Shannon) and a mysterious neighbor, played by Sam Shepard, who seems to have been hanging out in that house for decades.

Nichols’s filmmaking is rich and atmospheric, imbued with a lightly Southern Gothic feel and a remarkable ear for the regional dialect (there’s something perfect about a character being called “the triple-six, real-deal Scratch”). But unlike a lesser filmmaker, he doesn’t get hung up on the hanging out; his film builds momentum, carefully and deliberately, and when the confident third act arrives, the picture snaps to attention — the camera moves faster, the stakes are raised, and real suspense is generated. Most importantly, when Ellis reaches his emotional high point, the peripheral storytelling all makes sense; he lashes out because everything is wrong, everyone has betrayed him, and everyone’s a disappointment. That moment is not just a challenge to the other characters — it’s a challenge to the film, to keep pace with his expectations, and to surpass them.

Mud is the third film for Nichols, and he’s the real deal. His storytelling is engrossing, he’s astonishingly gifted with performers, and he can shake an audience to its emotional core. This is a moving, earnest picture, told with the vividness of a cherished memory.

Mud opens Friday in limited release.