In a boat high up in a tree, Mud, Ellis and Neckbone plot their escape

A FEW years ago, it seemed that Matthew McConnaughey had been sacrificed at the altar of so-so romantic comedies.

Another great actor, confined to the bargain bin at Xtra-Vision, to be picked up whenever there is literally nothing left.

Then, without warning, he got his act together and started making excellent films.

In fact, and I will say this on record again, he was robbed at this year’s Oscars, his performance in Magic Mike bizarrely snubbed.

With Mud, he continues that run of form, turning in possibly the best performance of his career.

Teaming up with Jeff Nichols, the director of 2011’s Take Shelter, McConnaughey takes on the eponymous role  of Mud, a fugitive stranded on an island in the Mississippi Delta.

When two 14-year-old boys, Ellis and Neckbone, take off on an adventure down the river, they end up swept ashore on Mud’s private island and the three strike up an unlikely alliance.

The two boys, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are excellent, meaning, that this isn’t just a film about a powerhouse performance from a resurgent star.

Sheridan pins down Ellis’ fierce idealism, putting his trust in the obvious nogoodnik Mud, while Lofland paints Neckbone with a more cautious pubescent-jadedness that comes from a tough life at home

That said, the Texan charmer’s Mud exudes an intense, deeply affecting charisma that touches every scene that he is in.

Key to his motivation is getting home to his girlfriend Juniper (a small, but effective role for Reese Witherspoon) while evading the authorities.

Using the boys, for fair means or foul, Mud is as reckless, charming and likeable as a McConnaughey character ought to be, but this is all part of something bigger.

Mud is an almost ethereal figure, a supernatural Tom Sawyer, described as having “no daddy, no mommy neither” by Sam Shepard’s character.

The air hangs thick and Mud can almost vanish into it, making the film feel both reality and fantasy.

There are notes of Twain, of Stand By Me, of Whistle Down The Wind and even of last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, but truly this is original film making by a truly gifted writer and director.

Nichols has openly acknowledged the effect that Mark Twain has had on his style, but the voice and visual style that Nichols is developing has nothing to do with Huck, Tom or Jim.

It is completely new and is a joy to watch.

Even when it is just wide shots of Arkansas riverbeds and flood plains, Nichols makes these scenes feel like something more than normal.

It is a fine effort from a film maker of some promise.

If the ending feels a little sentimental, that will be forgiven because the performances and characters on show are truly breathtaking and the film looks absolutely glorious.

As well as that, it is great to have McConnaughey on top form.