Director Jeff Nichols produced one of the best films of last year in Take Shelter, his unnerving and controlled examination of Michael Shannon's middle American mental breakdown.
Now with Mud, Nichols has made another excellent film and, while longtime collaborator Shannon makes a cameo, he's not the star of this Southern Gothic coming of age tale.
That honour goes to Matthew McConaughey, who gives the latest in a string of compelling performances putting him firmly on the map as a serious actor. He is no longer consigned to the silly hunk stereotypes he's played in romantic comedies over the years.
In the poor backwaters of Arkansas on the banks of the Mississippi, 14-year-old Ellis (Sheridan) and his best friend Neckbone (Lofland) discover an abandoned boat stuck in a tree on an island in the river. The boat is the home of a strange, dirty man whose name is Mud (McConaughey). As the boys spend more time with him, in spite of warnings from neighbours and parents, they learn the bones of Mud's story of dead men, bounty hunters and his true love, Juniper (Witherspoon). Mud has been waiting for Juniper so he can get the boat out of the tree into the water and sail off into the sunset.
As the boys become more and more involved in trying to help Mud escape they have to figure out how much of the story is true and how much is tall tales, before everything catches up with both them and Mud.
It makes for an engaging modern day Huckleberry Finn tale that's held together by Nichols's feeling for the world his characters inhabit - a world of both natural beauty and raw, dangerous men bent on revenge. It all seems to have the potential to descend into an overly sentimental piece of Southern good-old-boy nostalgia, but Nichols and his actors never allow it to reach that point.
McConaughey's performance is mesmerising, making it easy to see how a 14-year-old impressionable kid would do anything to help this strange drifter. He's well supported by young Sheridan and Lofland and the grouchy Sam Shepard in the role of a supposed former CIA sniper. Carefully revealing its story in small pieces over a languidly paced two hours, the film never drags or loses interest as it draws towards its violent climax and its tantalising ambiguous conclusion. Like Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, Mud creates an atmospheric portrait of a world simultaneously strange and recognisable. It is infused with a palpable feeling for its environment, doesn't rely on tricks and is a tribute to the dramatic potential found in the lives of ordinary people.