“Do you love her?”
Wistful and hoping for a yes, the rough-hewn Arkansas boy who asks that question can’t quite hold the gaze of the stranger, but his voice is insistent.
The question comes early in “Mud” and will haunt the 14-year-old and the movie until the final frame.
The answer — to what loving means, to how urgent it feels the first time, to how easily it can slip away, like the Mississippi River that runs through this tale — is wily and willful.
The movie itself, filled with miscreants, mysteries, a scandalous hero named Mud and a couple of boys as headstrong as Huck Finn, is one of the most creatively rich and emotionally rewarding movies to come along this year.
The boy named Ellis, portrayed by young Tye Sheridan, who first turned up in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” will ask about love many times over the course of the film. He will press his father, Senior (Ray McKinnon), his mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson), a bad-luck beauty named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), his first girlfriend May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), even the local recluse Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard). But Ellis will keep coming back to that stranger — Mud (Matthew McConaughey) — who seems to know more than most about life and loving.
Mud is a romantic on the run that Ellis and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), stumble across when they go to investigate a boat lodged high in a tree by some angry, earlier storm. It’s on a spit of sand that passes for an island in the middle of the Mississippi, not too far from one of the houseboat shanties that hug the river’s edge. Passed down from one generation to the next, it’s where Ellis has grown up and tells us everything we need to know about how precarious things are for him.
The boys’ investigation of the boat leads to the discovery of the man. Ellis is curious, Neckbone is wary. Bit by bit their prodding pulls the story out of Mud.
His murder of a Texas man in a quarrel over Juniper is what has him hiding. That death has dogged him like the bounty hunters paid for by the man’s father (Joe Don Baker) and the lawmen who are drawing closer. He’s hungry. He needs to get a letter to Juniper. Will they help?
Much turns on the clandestine adventure that follows, the boys’ excitement at being a part of it doing much to buoy the film. Besides, if Ellis believes anything, it is that Mud loves Juniper and Ellis is clearly moved by love.
With matted hair, a cracked front tooth, sun-browned skin and blues eyes sparking mischief, McConaughey beautifully articulates with his honeyed drawl the very essence of a grizzled, determined romantic. It is the best work of the actor’s career, though virtually everyone in the film turns in sensitively drawn performances, particularly the boys.
If you don’t know the name Jeff Nichols — if the writer-director’s singular voice, fierce and fearful in 2011’s “Take Shelter,” somehow eluded your notice — make note of it now. “Mud” should securely anchor this rising tide as a distinctive talent to remember.
Nichols is made in America, a storyteller in the tradition of Mark Twain, uncanny in the way he understands human nature, inventive in spinning that into a movie. There is an ease with which Nichols pokes around in people’s lives, unearthing small truths in authentic ways. In “Mud,” it feels as if he’s caught a small slice of backcountry soul like a firefly in a jar.
For such a spare film, “Mud” is dense with details. Ellis’ father, Senior, peddles his daily catch door to door, his marriage is disintegrating, and he doesn’t understand why. It’s all sketched out in a few scenes, sometimes just shadows in the next room and tense exchanges that Ellis overhears.
Neckbone helps out his uncle Galen (a mellow Michael Shannon rather than his apocalyptical worrier of “Take Shelter”). Galen spends a good part of his days under water, scouring the river channels for oysters. He wears a wet suit — all the time — and when he’s working he adds what looks to be the top half of some old deep-sea diving gear he picked up at a Jules Verne scrap sale.
But like everything else about “Mud,” the diving gear, the broken-down houseboats, the weathered skiff the boys use to navigate the Mississippi, seem specific to the moment. Nichols takes care not to repeat himself, though he does hold his friends close — Shannon’s been in all three of his films, and director of photography Adam Stone and others have helped in creating a recognizable style for each one.
Ellis and Neckbone are soon spending their days scavenging parts to help Mud ready the boat for the great escape and ferrying notes to Juniper, a long-legged mess in cutoffs. Witherspoon gives her character a lazy languor that is seductive in the Mississippi heat. Whether nursing a beer or tossing that long blond mane, it’s easy to imagine men falling for her.
Ellis is trying his hand at romance too, with a younger version of Juniper in May Pearl. His introduction is a swift upper cut to the chin of a rival who’s bothering her. All the while, the bounty hunters are gathering. State troopers are closing roads. Tom Blankenship, who’s got a long history and limited patience with Mud, gets involved. And Juniper remains as much of an enigma as love itself.
As Nichols stirs things up, everything that Ellis has been aching to understand will get tested. Each of the characters we’ve met along the way will be tried and found worthy, or not. Lives are in jeopardy, and there is a snake pit you will never forget. Though nothing is guaranteed, in Nichols’ sure hands you know it will be an exceptionally fine ending when it finally comes along.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence, sexual reference, language, thematic elements and smoking
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: In general release