By my count, Jeff Nichols is about one film away from achieving acclaimed auteur status. Woody Allen and Wes Anderson, y'all might want to make some room.
The y'all is intentional. Nichols, an Arkansas native, trafficks in delectable Southern Gothic cinema (2010's Take Shelter might be set in Ohio but it still qualifies in my book). Mud, which Nichols wrote and directed, centers on two adolescent boys from his native state, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who, in the course of their regular summer adventures come across a fugitive hiding away on an island in the Mississippi River and decide to help him as he attempts to elude the authorities and escape to parts unknown with his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
Matthew McCounaghey gives life to the fugitive, who goes by Mud, and whose overpowering charisma is enough to win over two kids that are just old enough to be a little cynical about the world.
Much of Mud's appeal comes from his romanticism. His adoration of Juniper is obvious. It's even the reason he's on the run, having killed an abusive boyfriend of hers down in Texas. This in stark contrast to the deteriorating relationship between Ellis' parents, played by Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon, and the sexual foibles of Neckbone's uncle and caretaker Galen, who is played by Michael Shannon.
McConaughey might play the title role, but it's Neck and especially Ellis who carry the film, caught between the pragmatism of their parents/guardians and the individualistic idealism that their new friend represents. The setting itself also plays a starring role. As with other films that immerse the viewer in the culture that isn't well known, places that might seem totally unappealing -- places like Southeast Arkansas -- are often quite the opposite.
Houseboats on the Mississippi River, kids hawking fresh catfish to local restaurants and the dangers of a pit of cottonmouth vipers can be just as fascinating as Manhattan given the right characters. And, oh, are Ellis, Neck, Mud and Juniper the right characters. You're invested in what happens to them all as bounty hunters tighten the proverbial noose around Mud and Juniper, with Ellis and Neck entangled every step of the way.
Because this is Southern Gothic, Nichols never gives you any sense that everything is going to work out or that there will even be any closure to be had. Danger, like the pit of vipers near Mud's hideout, is always one misstep away. You'll have to see the film to find out if anyone actually stumbles.
With both Mud and Take Shelter, Nichols has shown a great aptitude for character development and for cultivating mystery. It's not so easy for these two things to co-exist, so I think that makes him fairly special.
I'm not sure what it's going to take for more people to realize that, but I'm certain that his mass following isn't far away.