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Matthew McConaughey, Jeff Nichols enhance reputations with 'Mud'

You might not expect to find a glorious, uninhabited island in the middle of the Mississippi River. And even if you did, you probably wouldn't expect to find an unkempt and unsmiling Matthew McConaughey hiding out on it.

That such a thing feels credible in the new film "Mud" is a testament to the skill of young Austin, Texas-based director Jeff Nichols, whose new coming-of-age adventure is rich with geographic specificity yet concerned with universal emotions.

"To me, this movie felt authentic in a way that few movies feel authentic, especially in the South," said McConaughey, a Texas native. Following edgy roles in "Killer Joe" and "The Paperboy," McConaughey's turn in "Mud" is his latest bid to shed his unserious image through a Southern-set drama.

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He's not the only one with something to prove. After two bleak films — "Shotgun Stories" and the critical darling "Take Shelter" — Nichols, 34, wanted to make a different kind of movie this time, one driven by plot as much as theme. With "Mud," he traverses some mythic American territory, creating something that feels like an arty "Super 8" — or, perhaps, Huckleberry Finn with the star of "Magic Mike."

The story begins with Ellis (Tye Sheridan, recognizable as the youngest son from "The Tree of Life") who lives on a houseboat of sorts in Arkansas with his soon-to-be-divorced parents. The adolescent's relief comes in the form of his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), with whom he rides dirt bikes and rickety motorboats exploring the patchwork of land and water in their remote town.

While tooling around one day, they come upon Mud (McConaughey), a recluse and possible fugitive who lives on an otherwise uninhabited island and pines for his first love, Juniper, a troubled woman played by Reese Witherspoon. (The actress' presence in "Mud" is another example of Nichols' interest in casting against type, though in wake of her recent real-life run-in with police, her performance may land a bit differently with audiences than he intended.)

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Ellis, his notions of permanence already shaken by his situation at home, decides to step in. When Juniper shows up in town, Ellis and Neck try to reunite her and their newfound pal. Meanwhile, as Mud's legal troubles close in, the film also takes on thriller overtones.

"I wanted to make a big, classic American movie from the 1960s, like a 'Butch Cassidy,'" said Nichols, who grew up in Arkansas watching those films. "And I wanted to tip my hat to Mark Twain, who I think just bottled what it's like to be a child."

About seven years ago, Nichols had the idea, as he put it, "to make a movie about being cryogenically frozen in a state of first love." Nichols still nursed some wounds from a college breakup, and he thought to combine those feelings with the genre of the outdoor-discovery film. He started writing the script, putting ideas down even as he was also penning "Take Shelter," a moody tale of a man who believes the apocalypse is coming.

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As that project began gaining momentum, Nichols also had some opportunities to make "Mud." But he decided to wait — "Mud" required more money if he was to film scenes like a large boat stuck in a tree or a climactic, "Untouchables"-like shootout. The critical (if not commercial success) of "Take Shelter" afforded that opportunity, and the producer-sales agent FilmNation and the financier Everest Entertainment came aboard in 2011.

The strong reviews for "Take Shelter" and its star Michael Shannon (the actor also has a small role here) gave Nichols the clout to land other big names. And Nichols had an idea for who should play the lead: He had seen McConaughey in John Sayles' 1996 Texas drama "Lone Star" and thought the actor brought nuance and unexpectedness. He also liked McConaughey's charisma; if you're going to ask an audience to get on-board with a taciturn drifter, probably best to have him played by a well-liked charmer.

As it turned out, McConaughey was at the cusp of his own reinvention. After a spate of romantic comedies, including "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" and "Failure to Launch," the actor had begun lining up meatier roles, including as a colorful but levelheaded attorney in Richard Linklater's "Bernie."

"It's not like you sit there and say, 'This is a new chapter of my career.' But you feel it. And the scripts come in and they're starting to get a little better, and before long you're rolling," McConaughey said.

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The director decided to cast unknowns in the child roles. Rather than young Hollywooders without a feel for his locale, he sought out Southern boys who had the accents and the dirt-bike acumen. ("Mud" was Sheridan's second movie and Lofland's first.)

That made for a strange alchemy — McConaughey, a Hollywood vet, opposite boys who'd barely acted before. The pro walked the line carefully. "He'd never talk down to us," Sheridan, a high school sophomore from Palestine, Texas, said. "Even when we messed up, Matthew would just say, 'That happens so let's move on.'"

Though McConaughey admitted "it's strange to be the elder statesman," he took the boys on fishing trips and other bonding excursions. He said he tried to take the same approach as his character, who treats the boys evenly, like grown-ups. He also tried to imbue his role with a sense of existential discomfort at the same time as he begins to open up.

"It's a study of a complicated man, but ultimately I really see this movie as a love story between Mud and the boys," he said.

The approach appears to have worked, earning McConaughey strong reviews. Next up, the actor will appear in the similarly ambitious "The Dallas Buyers Club," an AIDS drama recently acquired by Focus Features and seen as an awards contender.

The recent positive response to "Mud" has also been a bit of a lift for Nichols and crew, who were met with mixed reviews when the movie had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival a year ago. The movie site the Playlist, for instance, called the film "shallow and contrived," and buyers held back. The movie was eventually bought by Roadside Attractions.

Nichols said he's still a little stung by the Cannes response. "I was trying to make a classic American movie and reviewers didn't want that from me. They thought 'Take Shelter' was a new kind of American movie and I guess they wanted to keep getting that."

And the filmmaker seems unsure of whether he wants to be a part of the Hollywood system. A deal with Peter Chernin's Fox-based company to direct a film about a prodigy who discovered the secrets of cold fusion recently fell through. "It was partly about money," Nichols said. "If I'm going to be taken away from my ideas, which I don't really want to be, it kind of has to be worth it."

At the same time that Nichols said he wants to stay independent, the lack of box-office success for "Take Shelter" seems to bother him. "It got the best reviews anyone could ask for," he said. "And it made about $2 million."

So Nichols is heading out to a more genre-colored place, albeit via the independent route. He is nearly finished with a script called "Midnight Special," a science-fiction chase movie that's a world away from the brooding metaphors of "Take Shelter" or the grounded terrain of "Mud." He hopes to shoot it this year.

"Mike Shannon said to me, 'Why do you keep feeling like you have something to prove?'" Nichols said. "But I do. Even after this. I mean, I love the idea of the masculine Southern story. But I want to do a lot more than that."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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