By Patrick McGavin

Cannes Film Fest 2012 (In Competition)–The third feature of the singular Southern independent Jeff Nichols, “Mud,” is a sharply made work that inventively combines a boys’ adventure, mystery and elegiac portrait of a past remembered.

Five years ago, Nichols burst on the scene with his debut, “Shotgun Stories,” which premiered at Berlin. His second feature, “Take Shelter,” which premiered at Sundance last year, captured the Critics’ week prize at Cannes Fest and won the top honors of the Deauville Film Fest.

And now, Nichols makes the impressive leap from a parallel series at Cannes to the Main Competition. “Mud” extends on the promise of his first two features, which both starred Michael Shannon.
And it’s also one of the strongest of the American titles in the festival this year.

Nichols proves to be a superb visual storyteller. His movies play off the discord and fractious relationships of individuals to meditate on what it means to be alive, or fully human.

Nichols returns to his Arkansas roots with the movie. The movie was shot, by Nichols’ regular cinematographer, Adam Stone, in 35mm widescreen. The imagery is pellucid and sharp, summoning a vanished frontier, a mythic South redolent of such writers as Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor and Mark Crews.

An adventure tale, “Mud” can be seen as a contemporary Huck and Tom Sawyer variation, about the avid and colorful sojourn of two 14-year-old kids whose search for excitement plunges them into devilish and difficult path way over their heads.

“Shotgun Stories” was an Old Testament story of blood lust and bitter rivalries. “Mud” opens with a startling sight on an island redoubt, in the Mississippi, of the boys discovering a boat held aloft in the trees, the fallout of a massive flood.

The enterprising and relentless Ellis (superbly played by Tye Sherman, one of the young brothers in Malick’s “The Tree of Life”) and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) undertake one of their reconnaissance missions to seize possession of the boat and transform it into a hideout.

But they encounter a mysterious man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who lives a precarious daily existence. The taciturn loner strikes a chord with the boys and they make a deal, according to which he agrees to give up possession of the boat if they help him secure some food.

Nichols, who wrote the script, creates a credible emotional world of the two kids, their solidarity and closeness forged through a shared status as outsiders. Ellis lives with his parents, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) and Senior (Ray McKinnon), on a boathouse. His need for adventure and discovery helps mitigate the clear strain of his parents’ tense marriage. For his part, Neckbone has never known his parents, and his lives with his uncle Galen (Shannon).

The boys are shrewd and street-smart enough to realize something amiss about the mysterious man. Indeed, they soon discover he is a fugitive wanted for murder. He did it, he says, to protect his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and now the island retreat is his sanctuary and hideout from authorities and bounty hunters dispatched from Texas to apprehend him.

Establishing a rapport with mysterious man, Ellis agrees to help him. The two kids become his couriers, foraging the hard materials, like an outboard motor, Mud requires to outfit the boat to leave the island. Crucially, Ellis becomes the man’s link to the outside world, from the dangerously beautiful and fragile Juniper to the hard-edged longer (Sam Shepard) also connected to Mud‘s past.

Nichols intertwines several plots, forming a kind of arabesque, which makes the action more complex. Among the stories are the slowly disintegrating marriage of Ellis’ parents and his own confusion about his first crush on an older classmate (Bonnie Sturdivant).

He also discovers how vicious the consequences are of involving himself in Mud’s story following a nasty encounter with Carver (Paul Sparks), the dead man’s brother and the most vicious of the hired hands.

That’s a lot of plot to digest and weave together, and though the rhythm and pace never falters, the increasingly incident-driven story dangles and splatters rather than take hold.

However, the film’s theme exerts a haunting and powerful grip, dealing with the nature of violence, its origins and consequences. Like many Southern stories, the past is superimposed over the present, and the conflict develops out of the characters’ needs to create their own moral order.

McConaughey brings tremendous physical presence to the part, but also damaged intensity. Here, he has submitted himself to a talented director and let go of some of his more eccentric stylization. The two kids are revelatory, imaginative, daring and unafraid. Witherspoon, who’s also a native Southerner, gives a sharp, modulated turn in a small but penetrating part.

If anything, the movie’s grand ambitions sometimes undermines the fragile story construction. It’s too bad, then, that the violent shootout that climaxes the movie seems imported from mainstream Hollywood. But Nichols redeems himself with two stunning images of transcendence and freedom.