PARK CITY — After blowing Sundance audiences away with his sophomore feature, “Take Shelter,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 festival, writer-director Jeff Nichols returns to Utah with his latest film, “Mud.”
Staking his claim as a major new voice in American cinema, Nichols takes audiences to a South that has all but disappeared.
But this time, it could be Matthew McConaughey who blows audiences away.
The story follows two Arkansas boys who live on the banks of the Mississippi — Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Eric Lofland). One day, they stumble on an island with a hidden treasure: a boat stuck in a tree. The problem is they’re not the only ones with designs on it.
Enter Mud (McConaughey), a silver-tongued drifter with stories of magic shirts, snakebites and the pursuit of true love. Although wary at first, as outside forces threaten to upend the world they know, the two boys become wrapped up in Mud’s plot to get off the island — even after they discover he’s wanted by the police.
In a lot of ways, “Mud” feels like a modern-day version of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
An Arkansas native himself, Nichols revels in a mythical South that seems to exist outside of the normal flow of time. The Mississippi River becomes a highway for assassins and pearl divers, and the site of unimagined adventures for the two boys.
Cinematographer Adam Stone, who previously worked on “Take Shelter” as well as Nichols’ debut feature “Shotgun Stories,” captures the Deep South with a warm, end-of-summer quality that complements Ellis’ own coming of age under the dubious tutelage of Mud.
Nichols’ ability to coax compelling performances out of his casts is also on full display here. In the lead role as Ellis, Sheridan delivers a rock-solid performance; especially considering his only other screen credit is Terence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.”
Likewise, as Ellis’ foul-mouthed partner-in-crime, Lofland seems almost too perfect in the role of Neckbone.
However, the star of the whole affair is undeniably McConaughey.
Come this time next year, don’t be surprised if his name pops up on lists of possible Oscar nominees for his performance as the titular outlaw. Ever since “The Lincoln Lawyer,” the Texas-born actor and son of a gas station owner has been riding a wave of career-topping roles, and this one could be his best yet.
He plays Mud with charm and charisma, but also with a sense of something dangerous just beneath the surface.
Also worth noting are supporting roles by Reese Witherspoon, Nichols’ go-to actor Michael Shannon (General Zod in the upcoming Superman reboot) and the great Sam Shepherd, as well as bit parts by Joe Don Baker, Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson, each of whom shines in the moments they have on screen.
Finally, the original score by David Wingo channels Southern Gothic bands like Sixteen Horsepower to great effect, making even mundane details of life on the Mississippi feel extraordinary.
Although a more mainstream effort than Nichols’ previous films, “Mud” is an engaging and entertaining example of magical realist filmmaking that holds up to the comparisons it will undoubtedly receive to things like Mark Twain.
If you’ve only ever seen McConaughey slumming it in romantic comedies, do yourself a favor and check out Nichols’ latest to understand just how great an actor he really is.
“Mud” has not yet been rated, but it would probably receive a PG-13 for mild vulgarity, language and some violence, including gunplay and a brief scene of physical abuse.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.