When critics were writing about Matthew McConaughey's renaissance last year, some of them were unofficially including Mud, the new film from Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols that premiered at Cannes last year. It was picked up there by Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate in partnership, a strong sign that the film might find a wider audience on the strength of a cast that includes Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon and, of course, McConaughey.
But despite the star power of its cast and canny criminal plot at its center, Mud might be a little too wily and heartfelt for mainstream release, running a rambling two hours-plus and featuring a few more characters than it has the room to support. An Arkansas-set coming-of-age story tinged with violence and heartbreak, Mud stars when 14-year-old boys Ellis and Neckbone (The Tree of Life's Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) make a slightly magical discovery of a boat abandoned at the top of the tree, only to find a mysterious man living in it. The man (McConaughey) calls himself Mud, and even when the boys realize he's not an average drifter but an escaped convict and murderer, they help his efforts to rebuild the boat, meet back up with his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and escape to the Gulf of Mexico.
There are also plot threads about Ellis's parents (Paulson and Ray McKinnon), his ill-fated crush on an older girl, Neckbone's uncle (Shannon) and his misguided ideas about women, and then the group of thugs who are trying to get their revenge on Mud. It's too much for one story, and the excessive plot gets in the way of Nichols' strengths as a lyrical capturer of rural life and boyhood. The scenes between Mud and the boys on his rough island home are beautiful, and the photography from Adam Stone, coupled with David Wingo's music, is evocative and gorgeous, a thousand childhood summers caught in a single shot. But when the film loops back to the tough guys on Mud's tail it starts to feel much more typical and a little lost-- a really wonderful movie constantly getting crowded on by the story it's forced to tell.
But the central force in the film is of course McConaughey, a benevolent but also terrifying father figure for both boys who, in some ways, is as naive as they are. Ellis is convinced to help Mud by his story of true love for Juniper, and the story's many threads are linked by romance-- or rather, what happens when a young boy's notions of romance bump up against the real world (Sheridan, overshadowed a bit in Tree of Life, plays this and everything else spectacularly well). Mud gets his own share of that heartbreak, and with his natural charisma coiled and cautious within this character living on the fringe, McConaughey doesn't exactly transform himself, but shows yet another side of an actor everyone wrote off as limited ages ago. There are lots of great reasons to see Mud, but McConaughey-- as he so often is these days-- might be the best one.
Mud comes to theaters on April 26. Click here for my full Sundance coverage so far.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Lionsgate was no longer co-releasing the film. We regret the error.