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***

Writer-director Jeff Nichols made his debut with the well-received Shotgun Stories and then followed that with the intriguing Take Shelter, starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. With Mud, he demonstrates once again that he's that rare breed of filmmaker who prefers to bury himself in the dirt of rural America rather than carve his initials into the concrete of sprawling urbanity.

Set in Nichols' home state of Arkansas, the picture follows teenage boys Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) as they make an unusual discovery in some woodland located on a small island off the Mississippi River: a boat stuck up in a tree. No sooner have the lads claimed it as their own than they discover it's already being used for shelter by an unkempt man who identifies himself as Mud (Matthew McConaughey.

Insisting he can't leave the area because he's scheduled a rendezvous there with his one true love (Reese Witherspoon), Mud implores Ellis and Neckbone to help him by bringing him some food. The boys comply, but with each subsequent visit — trips Ellis keeps from his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) and Neckbone from his uncle (Shannon) — they become more involved with Mud's plight and soon learn that everything is not what it seems.

With keen instinct, Nichols offers a look at the hardscrabble lives of folks eking out an existence in difficult circumstances — a definite step up from the protagonists of Winter's Bone and Beasts of the Southern Wild, but a trying experience nonetheless. Sheridan and Lofland are perfectly cast as the inquisitive Ellis and the no-nonsense Neckbone, and there's a sharp supporting turn by Sam Shepard as a neighbor who knows Mud better than anyone.

If Nichols' script isn't quite as memorable as the one he crafted for the edgy Get Shelter — McConaughey's title character could use more fleshing out, and the ending is a bit limp — his choices as director are first-rate throughout, not only in tapping both the inherent humor and suspense in the tale but also for keeping a leash on his leading actor's tendency to solely rely on his aw-shucks mannerisms. The character of Mud can be as messy as his name, but McConaughey cleanly punches him across.

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