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movie review

Worthy tale splits time between realism, whimsy

Matthew McConaughey has been on an extraordinary run of late, turning an impressively versatile hat trick in “Bernie,” “Magic Mike” and “Killer Joe” while proving that, rather than the tabloid punch line or rom-com sellout he seemed destined to be at one time, the boy with the bedroom eyes and bong-hit grin is a real actor, after all.

McConaughey’s low-key comeback continues with “Mud,” in which he plays the title character as a modern-day cross between Boo Radley and Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady. As the slippery central figure of Jeff Nichols’ richly observed coming-of-age fable, McConaughey injects a note of danger into a bayou noir story of youthful adventure that manages to be lyrical and sobering at the same time. Aided by extraordinarily assured performances from young co-stars Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, McConaughey defines his own version of a familiar Southern character – the frightening Other who can strangle as easily as save – as an enduring archetype rather than irritating stereotype.

As eye-catching as McConaughey’s performance is – thanks, in large part, to a leathery suntan, body-wrapping tattoo and snaggly prosthetic teeth – “Mud” really belongs to the 14-year-old boys who cross Mud’s path with memorably fateful results. Ellis (Sheridan) and his best friend, Neckbone (Lofland), live in a poor Arkansas community just off the Mississippi River, where Ellis lives on a houseboat and helps his father sell catfish door to door. When the boys sneak off to a nearby island and happen upon a boat lodged high in a tree, their imaginations are sparked: Soon they’re inspecting it for future use as hideout, clubhouse and all-around perfect means of adolescent escape.

Their plans are foiled when they meet the lone inhabitant of the island – Mud, whose reasons for being there are as mysterious as how he arrived. Nichols brings the same observant ear and sharp eye for atmospherics to “Mud” that he brought to his thriller “Take Shelter” two years ago: The film is drenched in the humidity and salty air of a Delta summer, often recalling the musical, aphoristic cadences of Sam Shepard, who happens to appear in a supporting role.

Easing in for close-ups on Sheridan and Lofland’s open, expressive faces, Nichols hits a prime balance between naturalism and more fantastical elements in telling their story, in which menace and tenderness coexist with finely tuned equipoise. Ellis’ cramped, cluttered houseboat, in which his parents continually argue over whether to move into town, and Neck’s far more precarious life with his young uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), are depicted with convincing realism. But then Nichols follows the boys to the wide river, and that gloriously impossible boat suspended in the tree, and “Mud” lifts into something more mythic and giddily fanciful.