Mud: Matthew McConaughey as an Outlaw in Love

Writer-director Jeff Nichols mines visual and dramatic poetry from this coming-of-age melodrama about a boy and the murderer he admires

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Mud is the place where the earth meets the water. In a rural stretch of Arkansas, a few folks live in wooden shacks along the Mississippi, as comfortable on the river as on land. One of these is 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan), whose parents (played by Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) have slipped into disharmony as they might sink into quicksand. Next door is Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), a tough coot and former military sharpshooter. And on an island offshore dwells a mysterious river god, or water demon, on the run from a murder warrant. He is played by Matthew McConaughey, and his name is Mud.

The original screenplay by Arkansas native Jeff Nichols is also a classic coming-of-age story about Ellis’s need to escape his home, where marital tension reigns, and sail unknown waters to find adventure and, perhaps, his grown-up self. Mud, which played at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and is one of this year’s most impressive works, could be called a romantic melodrama. But it’s really a clear-eyed essay on the power of romance: in a man’s love for a woman — Mud’s for his sweetheart Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), whom he means to rescue — and a boy’s faith in that man.

(READ: Richard Corliss on Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter)

Nineteenth-century literature, from Great Expectations to Huckleberry Finn, teaches that, when a boy befriends a man on the run from society, the boy is right and society is wrong. Ellis instinctively realizes that when he and his pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) visit a deserted island and discover a motorboat lodged high in a tree, the odd wreckage of some earlier violent storm. Mud, hiding there from bounty hunters hired by the dead man’s father (Joe Don Baker), embraces the boys as his posse and his go-betweens. He asks them to bring him tools to fix the boat, and food, and to deliver a letter to Juniper, who, he is sure, awaits him.

Neckbone, Ellis’s age but still a kid at heart, harbors a healthy skepticism toward the renegade: “I think you want us runnin’ around, stickin’ our necks out and gettin’ everything you need, just so you can take our boat.” But Ellis is ready to trust his innocent instincts and assist a man who admits to being a murderer for love. Helping Mud is Ellis’s rite of passage to manhood. And for the moment, Mud is the man he wants to be.

(SEE: TIME’s 10 Questions for Reese Witherspoon)

Mud is no stranger, at least by reputation, to the elders around Ellis. “He’s been in love with that girl,” Tom says of Mud and Juniper, “since he was your age.” Ellis has to believe in Mud’s love for Juniper because, having seen what a man will do for a woman, and listening to his own changing body, he has launched his own puppy-love affair with May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), a schoolgirl a few grades above him. Mud is separated from his girlfriend by the Mississippi, Ellis from his by age. Mud killed a guy who hurt Juniper; Ellis punches an older boy who has shoved May Pearl. He’s learning fast from the Mud playbook. “Women are tough, boy,” his father says, “they’ll set you up for things,” as if warning Ellis of the same fate that befell Mud. But the boy wants to navigate the shoals of sexual awakening; they are part of the outlaw journey he is ready to take.

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, another wonderful film from last year’s Cannes, Mud is about a water community both nurtured and imperiled by the mighty Mississippi. Ellis’s house and those of his neighbors are to be demolished by the government. “Enjoy this river, son,” his father tells him, “enjoy it while you live on it. ’Cause this way of life ain’t long for this world. River Authority’s about made certain of that.” Ellis, proud of his outlier status (“I ain’t no townie”) and prodded by his bubbling hormones to be a rebel and lover in the Mud mode, is coming to maturity in a region inundated in obsolescence.

(READ: How Beasts of the Southern Wild tamed Cannes)

After the arid plains of his first film, Shotgun Stories (also set and shot in Arkansas), and the apocalyptic storms heralded in Take Shelter, director Nichols paints his new movie on a wider canvas, mining visual and aural poetry from the locations in his home state. The river shacks have an antediluvian dignity. Golden low-key lighting warms the faces of Mud, Ellis and the women they revere. On Mud’s island refuge, sunlight flares through the branches; insects chorus over his whispered secrets; spiders clamber up a tree, and cottonmouths lurk in a backwater. “God put ’em here for us to fear,” Mud says of snakes. Like nearly every line of dialogue in the film’s first hour, this one will come back to bite you in the second.

Nichols’ first two features — both starring Michael Shannon, who appears here as Neckbone’s Uncle Galen — were admirable efforts a little removed from their ache of their characters’ agitated souls. His new film, altogether more elemental, and living inside the longing of Ellis and Mud, aims for more mainstream emotions. That it finds them is due in part to the splendid work of the ensemble cast. McConaughey, who has now officially graduated from Hollywood heartthrob to one of the most sensitive and daring actors in independent cinema, fuses perfectly with a storybook hero-rogue who is both deeply troubled and utterly persuasive.

(READ: Richard Corliss on Matthew Mc Conaughey in Killer Joe)

Primary praise, though, goes to the two young actors and their own natural fusion with their roles. Sheridan, whose only previous film role was as Brad Pitt’s youngest son in The Tree of Life, is a wonder of passion blooming in reticence. The film’s dilemmas are perceived through his open eyes and unjaded heart.

Glorious vision of youth and truth, love and loss, your name is Mud.

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