May 22 2013 12:00 AM

McConaughey sheds pride, not shirt, in powerful performance

After an electrifying breakthrough performance in 1996’s “A Time to Kill” — followed by solid showings in “Contact” and “Amistad” — Matthew McConaughey mostly slummed it through the ‘00s. He went with brainless pap that focused on his Southern charm and chiseled torso that did nothing to challenge his acting chops — call in the Pecs Period, which lasted from “The Wedding Planner” to “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.” 

But with his recent critical successes, “The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Bernie” and “Magic Mike” (oops, there goes that shirt again), the 43-year-old has pulled a surprising Affleck-ian comeback — and he continues that winning streak in his latest outing, the twisty, hypnotizing “Mud.”       

But he’s not even the star of the movie. That honor belongs to Tye Sheridan, who plays Ellis, a scrappy Arkansas river kid who throws haymakers at his romantic rivals and broods over his fighting parents. Ellis and his best friend, Neckbone (River Phoenix look-a-like Jacob Lofland), both 14, are a modern day Tom and Huck who happen upon a puzzling sight while exploring the islands and inlets along their stretch of the Mississippi: a cabin cruiser perched 20 feet up a tree. They lay claim to it, but when it proves to be inhabited by Mud (McConaughey), a tattooed, gun-toting stranger who’s hiding out from society, the plot begins to slither intriguingly forward. 

The thing is, every time you think you’ve got “Mud” figured out, it turns on you. The straightforward plot — help Mud reunite with his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) — becomes ancillary at best to the real mechanizations of the story.  Additionally, what at first appear to be clichd caricatures — the aloof dad, the vengeful assassin — turn out to be elementary sketch strokes of fully fleshed-out characters that carefully uncoil as the story progresses. 

The film also hosts a bevy of strong supporting actors, including Sam Shepard as a mysterious neighbor and Michael Shannon as Neckbone’s wildcard uncle. Every man in the film, however, seems to be defined by how much a woman has destroyed his life; for a while, “Mud” threatens to devolve into a He-Man Woman-Haters Club, where men are strong and womenfolk are venomous succubae. “Vile devilwomen!” you think.

Or are they? All three female leads — Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson (as Ellis’ mother) and Bonnie Sturdivant (as Ellis’ school crush) — are well crafted, but given little more to do than spur the men into action. The duplicitous Juniper is probably the best worst example of this; is she really hanging around town so she can make her escape with Mud, or is she just getting a kick out of toying with his emotions? But it’s more complex than that — the men seem to crave the pain. 

In each male-female relationship we’re shown, the men expose their most vulnerable sides and show the women where best to sink their teeth. They then lie to themselves, and each other, about the source of the scar. Writer/director Jeff Nichols seems to be goading the characters into realizing the meaning of Pogo’s maxim: We have met the enemy, and he is us. 

As for McConaughey, his measured demeanor, his predatory gaze and his deliberate movements make him seem ready to strike at any moment. He’s exciting to watch, and “Mud’ is a showcase for his laconic acting style. And those famous abs? Well, let’s just say that Mud is blessed with a shirt he believes is imbued with magical properties that offers him better protection that his 9mm. He assures Ellis he will never take it off, so there’s no possibility of — oh wait, there it went.