See itSet around the Mississippi River and told from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old protagonist, director Jeff Nichols’ third feature film, Mud, taps into a romantic image of a rustic alpha male: the man in the forest with the gun, the antiestablishmentarian, the vagabond who sleeps in a different spot every night. Nichols’ modest and meditative coming of age drama then chips away at it, the fibre of this mythical man’s strength broken down through his relationship with other people.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) encounter the outlaw on an island, living in a small washed-up boat (very “up” — it’s metres above ground, jammed between trees) and his name is the film’s eponymous word. Matthew McConaughey, a fine choice to play a larger than life character whose simplistic mannerisms conceal inner complexities unraveled by changes of circumstance — especially given the actor’s current groove, riding the winds of a remarkable batch of career realigning films — is deep and soulful as Mud, a performance veneered with the kind of gritty masculinity easily mistaken for indifference or nonchalance.

Mud is on the run from the law, the crime he committed linked to a woman named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who is holed up in a shabby hotel and awaiting word on his location. Other, shadier forces are on the look-out for Mud, and Ellis acts as a carrier pigeon to pass messages between the compromised lovers. When Juniper asks what is motivating him to help them, the wide-eyed whipper snappers responds: “because ya’ll love each other.” But, Ellis’ father warns, “you can’t trust love.”

Audiences have recently been treated to a couple of great American films about men wrestling with emotions: Joe Carnahan’s The Grey and Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. The former was under-appreciated because it’s packaged as a man versus wild B movie, which is the same reason it transcends multiplex mentality and emotionally challenges the kind of male characters it depicts, who would ordinarily not venture among latte-sipping art cinema crowds or willingly sit through two hours of something billed as an exploration of the human condition.

Mud is about the fragility of men, the craving to be loved — by a woman, by other men — and how easily that love is misplaced, taken away, cheated or lost. The kid may think it’s about ya-ll loving each other, but Eillis will discover Lady Love’s wand leaves lots of wishes to be desired, and many complications in the spells it conjures. If Mud were a more conventionally-minded film about separated lovers who reunite in a state of confetti down the steps bliss it would have become twee and life-affirming in ways Nichols has taken pains to avoid.

A spray of emotions that burst out of Ellis like an exploding valve on a pressure cooker emphasise how much the breaking of idealism can hurt, how much the film is about a failure of the myth to match the man, and how such disappointment, viewed through a pair of young and impressionable eyes, can hurt so profoundly. Ellis scolds Mud for being a liar, a phony and a cheat, but he is really confronting himself, angered by his own naivety and unsettled by glimpses of adult life reflected back at him.

The imperfections of the boy’s own ideas begin to hurt, from the flaws of his surrogate father to his experimentation with young love. Men’s relationship with women, despite the film’s dearth of female characters — and irrespective of those who may claim the film should have represented women more “fairly” or more dominantly, and thus misunderstand Nichols’ intention, or simply cannot get their heads past a proportional numbers game — is an important part of Mud’s psychological essence.

Mud is a fine film: one of the year’s finest, despite an ending that errs precariously close to baking psychological confrontation onto drama as if resolving complex issues were a matter of physically pitting “good” and “evil” forces against each other. Perhaps an early splotch of action would have helped prepare audiences for the tonal shift, or perhaps the greatest measure of Nichols’ restraint can be gauged by the moments his approach most closely resembles conventional dramatic escalation.

It’s no coincidence — and nor is it a spoiler — that the song playing over the end credits is Help Me Rhonda (“get her out of my heart”). Reese Witherspoon, in “damaged goods” mode, neatly encapsulates the female ability to change a man’s destiny in ways he (or she) might not tolerate or understand.

Ellis’ father tells him the law will come and take their house down “plank by plank.” The reason? A messy divorce with his mother. Near the end of the film a simple shot depicting Ellis gazing at another girl, loaded with the knowledge of his vulnerabilities, is enough to suggest he has already prepared a transfer of his affections and is about to endeavour in another stint at early love almost certainly doomed to fail.

The Mississippi River, adored by cinematographer Adam Stone’s wandering lens (he also shot Nichols’ previous films, Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories) provides a headspace where Nichols is able to make a point that the same things that always stay with us (love, desire) are the same things constantly changing and evolving, and their imperfections are part of the reason they are beautiful.

“If I see a crack in the sidewalk, to me it’s more beautiful than any human being,” Val Kilmer said to a fuzzy-eyed, disoriented Bob Dylan in Larry Charles’ Masked and Anonymous. “A crack in the mud at the bottom of a sun dried dead lake, I count that more beautiful than any human being.”

In a sense those words fit mud — the bit down the bottom of the lake rarely seen and which seldom rises to the surface — and Mud, the character who is, at least initially, all surface, the significance of his name lying somewhere in his psyche, beneath streams of other people’s emotions. They are ultimately what undoes him: not feats of physical strength befitting Matthew McConaughey’s glistening bod, but the way other people react — not to his character, per se, but to the things they wish him to be.

Mud’s Australian theatrical release date: June 13, 2013.