Mud (PG-13, 130 minutes, Lionsgate) : In an impressively versatile Bernie, Magic Mike and Killer Joe hat trick, Matthew McConaughey proves that the rom-com star with the bedroom eyes and bong-hit grin is a real actor, after all. His low-key comeback continues with Mud, in which he plays the title character as a modern-day cross between Boo Radley and Robert Mitchums Max Cady. As the slippery central figure of Jeff Nichols richly observed coming-of-age fable, McConaughey injects a note of danger into a bayou noir story of youthful adventure that is lyrical and sobering at the same time. Aided by extraordinarily assured performances from young co-stars Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, McConaughey defines his own version of a familiar Southern character the frightening Other who can strangle as easily as save as an enduring archetype rather than irritating stereotype. Simple values hard work, honesty, trust, basic decency inform everything about Mud, from its story to its aesthetic. That simplicity makes Nichols film something of the anti-Beasts of the Southern Wild, last years arthouse darling that depicted a similar world and its marginal figures with stylized and troubling exoticism. Contains some violence, sexual references, profanity, thematic elements and smoking. Extras: commentary with Nichols and featurettes on Nichols writing and directing, the characters and cast, Southern Authenticity: Shooting the Real Arkansas and The Snake Pit: The Slithering Co-stars of Mud.
The Place Beyond the Pines (R, 140 minutes, Universal): Ryan Gosling plays a kind of tattooed lover-boy role as a drifter named Luke, who makes his living on the road as a motorcycle stunt rider. For a minute, it looks like The Place Beyond the Pines will be a deeply psychological character study in the tradition of The Wrestler or The Fighter. But Derek Cianfrance goes for something more sprawling and self-consciously dramatic: a meditation on fate, destiny and sins of the fathers delivered as a three-act triptych with diminishing returns. During the films first act, Gosling commands attention with every flick of his eyelashes. Luke is paid a visit by Romina (Eva Mendes) and decides to hang around, fetching up at a roadside mechanics shop run by a motorcycle enthusiast named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn). Even though Lukes subsequent actions are motivated by his devotion to Romina, the real romance in The Place Beyond the Pines is between Luke and Robin: Cianfrance shoots them in the high-key light of lovers, their blue eyes flashing toward each other amid the garages sooty grime. Lukes chapter of The Place Beyond the Pines features the films best scenes, including at least two impressive chases through the Schenectady, N.Y., streets and a cemetery. As the sum of some admittedly imperfect parts, The Place Beyond the Pines still manages to cast its own haunting, sorrowful spell. Contains profanity throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use and a sexual reference.