Iron Man 3 is the best entertainment flick so far this year, at mid-May. It has made almost a billion dollars in two week so the film really doesn’t need any encouraging review from me. It’s a great big flashy movie and you’ll love it.

But it’s not the best movie of the year to date. That honor falls to a small, low-budget film shot on the Mississippi River in Arkansas. It’s the third film directed and written by Arkansas-born Jeff Nichols Take Shelter (2012), Shotgun Stories (2007) and it’s so good that it leaves no doubt he is one young American director with a golden future.

Mud is the story of a 14-year old boy, Ellis (Tye Sheridan, The Tree of Life) and his buddy, Neckbone (first-timer Jacob Lofland), who befriend a mysterious fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike) on an island in the river, and help him fulfill his dream—to rescue the woman he loves, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line) and escape with her. It’s a coming of age story, but much more. It’s about different fathers and how they relate to their sons, about the changing nature of the relationship between men and women, about friendship and betrayal and loss and the fierce power of longing. It’s about a white shirt that is a shield of protection, a den of deadly snakes, a spy who may not be a spy, and a woman, beloved, who may not love in return. Through it all runs the river, which is both life-giving and death-dealing and its undercurrents of transformative magic. The film is solidly original, though it has echoes of Stand by Me (1986) and Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012).

Ellis is an adventurous only child who’d rather boat on the river with Neckbone than stay home and be witness to the disintegration of his parent’s marriage. His Mom (Mary Paulson) owns the houseboat on which they live, a fact that his surly ne’er do well father (Ray McKinnon) resents to such a degree that he’s poisoned the marriage. Neckbone, seeming without parents, is half-heartedly raised by his uncle (Michael Shannon), who makes a precarious living diving for oysters in an ancient underwater suit.

One day the boys sail past an island and see something astonishing — a large powerboat stuck up high in the branches of a tree, no doubt tossed there by some long-forgotten storm. When they approach the boat, they find it has already been claimed by a stranger. This is Mud, played with fearless intensity and poetic tragedy by Matthew McConaughey in the best role of his career. Mud is a fugitive from justice who has killed a man to save the woman he loves. The question running through the film is–is Juniper (in a totally different role for Reese Witherspoon) in reality the wonderful woman Mud imagines her to be, or is she more flesh and blood with a few demons of her own?

Mud convinces the boys to help him free the boat from the tree and then escape with Juniper to a life of togetherness and happiness down the river. The plan appeals to all the heroic fantasies and mischief of 14-year olds and they eagerly join in. They get everything Mud needs from their small town, whether they have to buy it, borrow it or steal it. They are observed by another mysterious stranger who lives on the river, an older man named Tom (Sam Shepard), who warns the boys not to believe a thing Mud tells them. But they are besotted by the prospect of being a part of Mud’s romantic adventure and like all 14-year olds, think they are invincible.

Alas, watching them also is another old man, this one named King (played by a barely recognizable Joe Don Baker), who wants to hunt down and kill Mud in revenge for the death of his son. What began as a heart-warming tale of adventure now becomes a life and death struggle. Where does truth end and fantasy take over? What is the role of lying in self-preservation? How can the bonds of friendship, worn ragged, still heal? Can love really conquer all or is love merely the inspiration of young men and the suffering of old ones?

A movie that asks all these questions—and more—is one that is thoroughly layered in the human condition. Mud is a surprisingly mature work for a director/writer who is only 35 years old and it keeps you fascinated for every minute. The performances are all wonderful, especially the boy Tye Sheridan and Matthew McConaughey, who is absolutely riveting. The photography is marvelous as well, capturing the beauty of the river and the poverty of the people who live along it.

Bottom line: If there is one movie that opened so far this year that you should see, it’s this one.

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