Mudbound is a fascinating, moving film from director Dee Rees. Set in the deep south during the forties, this adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 bestseller is deeply affecting but not without its own contradictions, a sprawling literary epic that feels somehow too contained.
Debuting on Netflix tomorrow, Mudbound is the story of two families working the same soggy tract of land in Mississippi, bogged down by long years of racial mistreatment and distrust. The McAllans are the white landowners, while the Jacksons are the black sharecroppers who toiled there before the McAllans arrived.
Jason Clarke is Henry McAllan, a stoic businessman of little imagination but a longing to live off the land. Carey Mulligan is Laura, the woman who marries Henry to avoid becoming an old maid in the city. His brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is an underachieving playwright and rascal charmer who takes an immediate shine to Henry’s fiancée. Grateful to Henry for taking an interest in her, Laura and Henry have a small family and a good life in town. But Henry wants to be a farmer, and one night tells Laura he’s sold the house and bought a tract of land, and they’ll be moving there in two weeks. It’s immediately clear Henry’s the only person making the important decisions.
Life on the farm is hard, with none of the city’s conveniences. The McAllans move in with Henry’s racist curmudgeon father Pappy (Jonathan Banks). Laura wins a small victory, insisting that her piano stay in the house, pushing the immediately insufferable Pappy to live in a leaky lean-to.
Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) is the father of the sharecroppers. He’s uneasy around the new owners, and Henry assumes a demanding attitude of automatic superiority from their first meeting. Hap and his wife Florence (a superb Mary J. Blige) are trying to save so they can buy their own land, but it’s a hard scrabble, and circumstances keep setting them back. Their oldest son Ronsell (Jason Mitchell) is called to fight in WWII, where he finds himself in the all-black tank battalion known as the Black Panthers. Henry’s brother Jamie is off fighting the war as well, but as a bomber pilot, living out the hells of war from high in the sky.
When the war ends, the two men return to help out at the farm, and strike up an odd friendship. They’re both shaken by their experiences, and find it hard to revert to normal civilian life. Jamie takes to drinking, while Ronsell can’t bring himself to surrender the dignity he’d acquired as a soldier fighting to free Europe from the Nazis. Back in Mississippi, he can’t accept the second class status he has there, forced to leave a store by the back door. When Jamie offers Ronsell a ride, Ronsell has to ride in the back of the open pick-up as they leave town. A black man couldn’t ride with a white man. Once out of the city, Jamie tells Ronsell to join him in the cab. Ronsell only agrees after being ordered (Jamie naturally being an officer), and even then, has to duck if anyone passes them.
The South’s racist roots run deep, and beyond the Jim Crow laws there’s the KKK, threatening and inciting violence to keep blacks in their place. Bad summers force the two families to depend on each other more, but no fraternization between blacks and whites will be tolerated. As Jamie and Ronsell try to work out their PTSD, a grim reckoning comes knocking.
Mudbound is Rees’s sophomore film, and it’s confidant and accomplished. It has an almost old-time sensibility to it, like a film from the era it depicts. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is gorgeous and full of sumptuous vignettes. Rees struggles more with the novelistic sprawl of a big cast and long stretches of time. The film retains a lot of the potency of Hillary Jordan’s words by giving voiceovers to six of the main characters. It’s an unusual tactic, but it works to put the viewer in the heads of very different people, most of whom would be wise not to say what’s on their minds. The “show don’t tell” set might not like it (and I’m generally one), but it makes sense for this movie.
Oddly, the interior monologues don’t quite give us enough insight or emotion. In the end, the tragedy of actions speaks far louder. As the narrative swells to give equal time, certain characters fall away. Laura, who initially seems like the potential heroine of the piece, becomes a bit player by the time Mudbound finishes. And the building attraction between her and Jamie is given short shrift. That’s perhaps as it should be, for a story that confronts the dilemma of an inescapable racist past, but it makes the through-point of the drama muddled.
The very real swamp America finds itself in today lies in the festering contradictions of its past. Mudbound depicts a time in American history when it was impossible to do better. It’s a bracing comment that eighty years later, we’re still struggling.