Mud's appeal is due in large part to Matthew McConaughey's wonderful performance as the larger-than-life title character.

Jeff Nichols' third feature film, “Mud”, has become a word-of-mouth hit in the past few weeks. Its appeal is due in large part to Matthew McConaughey's wonderful performance as the larger-than-life title character, but this is more of a coming-of-age story than the trailers for the film might suggest, one in which McConaughey's character plays a key but not necessarily central role. Nichols has cited the work of Mark Twain as an influence, and what's miraculous about “Mud” is that it feels like a Huck Finn-type of adventure set in the modern world.

The Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn character in this story is named Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a 14-year-old boy who lives in a houseboat with his parents on the Mississippi River. Like Tom and Huck, Ellis and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland, whose thick Arkansas accent is its own kind of special effect), find all sorts of mischief to get into in their home town of De Witt. “I bet you boys know every hole and ditch in this town,” a man observes, and it definitely seems that way.

One day, the boys find a boat stuck in a tree on a little island, and soon they meet the man who's been living there. He introduces himself as Mud, and he's unlike anyone Ellis and Neckbone have ever met. Actually, he's unlike anyone any millennial has ever met, since he seems to have stepped right out of a Mark Twain story. As played by McConaughey, Mud is a scruffy sort who's long overdue for a visit to the dentist. He has his own, slightly superstitious philosophy on life, believing there are forces in the world that determine a man's luck, which is why he sports nails shaped like crosses on the heels of his shoes, “to ward off evil spirits.”

Mud also has an explanation as to what he's doing on that island, and whether or not he's telling the truth, and how dangerous he is, are what fuels a lot of the suspense in the first half of the film. He claims to be hiding out until he can reunite with his one true love, a beautiful woman with nightingales tattooed on her hands named Juniper. We aren't quite sure Mud is trustworthy because we see him, in an idealized light, through the eyes of Ellis, who's willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, even when the highway patrol starts stopping cars and flashing Mud's mugshot. The way the story trickles information to us about Mud, keeping us in the dark as to the nature of the man, is masterful, as Ellis finds out more about his new hero from a retired sniper named Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) and from Juniper herself (Reese Whitherspoon, convincing in an unglamorous and not always sympathetic role).

Ellis desperately wants Mud's side of the story to be true because he has to believe the kind of pure love Mud has for Juniper can still exist in the world. Ellis' home life has been giving him doubts about that, as his parents' marriage begins to dissolve. His child's-eye view of things – Mud and Juniper are meant to be together, the local girl he has a crush on will like him back – is about to meet some harsh realities, and, as played by Sheridan, Ellis' loss of innocence is utterly poignant and heartbreaking. Sheridan made a strong impression as the least seen of the three brothers in Terrence Malick's “The Tree of Life”, but his evolution as Ellis is quite something to behold. We see the character grow up before our eyes.

While the film is notable for its striking regional authenticity, Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone have given its riverboat settings an almost dreamlike quality. In addition to being a love story and coming-of-age story, the movie also has some thriller elements, as dangerous men who are hunting Mud arrive in town. As he proved with the spectacular storm that concluded his second feature, 2011's “Take Shelter”, the director knows how to film great action, and he tops himself here with a thrillingly staged climactic shoot-out. Nichols has said he wrote the role with McConaughey in mind, which may explain why this seems like such a quintessential performance. After “The Lincoln Lawyer”, “Bernie”, “Killer Joe” and now this, McConaughey is really on a roll.

“Mud” is now playing in area theaters.

Stephen is an AHS graduate who studied film and journalism in college. He thinks if you like “Mud”, then you'll also enjoy Nichols' first two movies, “Shotgun Stories” and “Take Shelter”. He lives in Wichita.