Another first-rate showcase for Matthew McConaughey’s mid-career renaissance (following last year’s turns in Magic Mike, Killer Joe and Bernie), Mud finds the actor playing ... well, Mud, a charming ne’er-do-well hiding from the cops on a tiny island off the Southern coast. Like a Mark Twain character grown up and gone to seed, Mud knows how to manipulate people to get what he wants, so the two teenage boys (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who accidentally discover him there are putty in his hands.
One of them in particular identifies much too strongly with Mud’s ostensibly pure love for his estranged childhood girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and agrees to serve as a go-between ... unaware that he’s also providing valuable information to a pissed-off vigilante (Joe Don Baker) who wants Mud deader than dirt.
Less arty and ambitious than writer-director Jeff Nichols’ previous feature, Take Shelter, Mud functions more like a ripping yarn, serving up memorable regional variations on the template involving a wide-eyed innocent and a dangerous but charismatic stranger. The film’s gender politics are troublingly retrograde—every female character seems ready to ditch her devoted man at the first opportunity—but if you can get past that speed bump, the richly detailed performances and daylight-Gothic atmosphere will pull you in deep. And there’s just no denying McConaughey’s talent after this. Let the naked bongo jokes cease.