Few recent films have the evocative sense of place that "Mud" does. Writer-director Jeff Nichols sets his drama in the deep South, in a stark, downtrodden Arkansas town, but he doesn't fall into stereotyped traps. Out along the undeveloped banks of a quiet river are a couple of houseboats grandfathered into their right to stay there. On one lives a 14-year-old boy (a wonderful Tye Sheridan) who struggles with his parents' dissolving marriage even as he develops his own crush - and, more significantly, decides to help a man meet up with his love. But things are not so simple; the man (Matthew McConaughey) is running from a murder, and the woman (Reese Witherspoon, doing fine work in a small role) may not be a bastion of star-crossed-lovers loyalty. Nichols, who also helmed "Take Shelter," loses his way near the end. The movie goes off the rails, as if, all of a sudden, a Hollywood exec rewrote things. But, before that, it's an effecting and immersive experience.
- KRISTINA DORSEY