When you enter a world of people named "Mud" and "Neckbone," where a revenge-minded Joe Don Baker leads assassination-ready bounty hunters in a prayer circle, where the only product placement involves Matthew McConaughey chugging cans of Beanee Weenee, you're in the character-specific rural world of filmmaker Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, 2011's sleeper hit about blue collar mental illness, the trouble with health insurance and the tornado belt's peculiar lack of facilities for those sorts of disasters). He's the kind of actor's director who can even persuade Reese Witherspoon to return to her trashy Freeway-era self. It's enough to make you wonder if she got in trouble with the police for something as low-rent as public drunkenness just to promote this film with an air of authenticity.
McConaughey is the title character, another in his recent string of really welcome performances that recall a stringier, grimier version of his Dazed and Confused stoner jerk, a good-bad man informed by that original character's weird humor, busted swagger and decent-hearted creepiness. Mud is a man on the lam, stuck and starving on a small island, guilty of a crime of passion thanks to his undying devotion to the wayward Juniper (Witherspoon). He's discovered and aided by 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan, The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland). They run food and supplies while Mud tries to get an escape boat out of a tree.
Except it's not really Mud's story. He's just the visiting alien who needs more and more cans of Beenee Weenee to survive, the momentary and necessary distraction for Ellis, a troubled boy who needs a temporary anchor to hold onto as his romantic crushes result in humiliation, his parents threaten divorce and his impoverished family's entire way of life falls under a cloud of uncertainty. Mud provides a task, an adventure and, as the movie suddenly jolts from small and recognizable to big and implausible, a sense of really cool danger with gunfire.
That unraveling, the result of a loud, incident-packed final act, makes it a less contained film than Take Shelter, but still one that builds on Nichols' growing reputation as an American director with a voice that deserves attention. It's full of magnetic performances -- especially from young Sheridan, even when he has to shout angry monologues that explain everything you already know -- and, best of all, a respectful, storyteller's approach to rural America. No mockery, no Hollywood-knows-better, no nonsense. That kind of thing is in shorter supply than the universe's collective desire for McConaughey to return to rom-coms.