Over the last few years there have been several prominent movies dealing with the issue of slavery or the racial aftermath that reverberated for decades. Movies like “12 Years a Slave”, “Selma”, and “The Birth of a Nation” each had their strong points, but also fell victim to certain creative and narrative choices of their directors.
Enter “Mudbound” from director and co-writer Dee Rees. “Mudbound”, based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 debut novel, is a period drama set in the Mississippi Delta during the 1940s. The story deals with a variety of potent issues – racism, poverty, and PTSD just to name a few. Rees’ adaptation gives them all form through an intensely honest and clear-eyed perspective.
Rees anchors her film in the right place – with her characters. “Mudbound” is essentially the story of two families. Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) marries Laura (Carey Mulligan) in 1939 and soon moves her, their two daughters, and his racist father (Jonathan Banks) to a Mississippi farm he abruptly purchased. Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan giving some of the year’s finest supporting work) is a tenant farmer whose family has worked Henry’s newly acquired land since his grandfather was a slave. Hap dreams of owning his own farm but always puts the aspirations of his kids ahead of his own.
Both families are compelling but in dramatically different ways. Each face the brunt of harsh deep south poverty and both face it the best way they know how. But their struggles and circumstances couldn’t be more different both inside and outside of their homes. And despite their mutual see-through pleasantries and respect, the sting of a morally corrupt social order is felt in nearly every conversation the two families share.
But there is one earnest thread that connects them. It comes in the form of Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell). Both young men return to Mississippi after fighting in Europe during the final days of World War II. They both are scarred from the war and find solace in their new friendship which bucks the gross social norms of their small town. While their relationship offers a little light in a period of darkness, it potentially sets in motion trouble that will ripple through both families.
Another key element is the setting which Rees portrays with gritty realism. There is no luscious coat of studio paint. The land isn’t glamorized through cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s camera. Instead the beauty is in the authenticity and how the characters perceive it. It’s a fittingly unpolished presentation of a land aching almost as much as the people tending it.
Not all the visuals are as impressive. The action scenes featuring Jamie as a pilot aren’t very convincing and clearly didn’t get much attention. But this is such a minor complaint considering Rees and company nail the important stuff – the characters. “Mudbound” digs deep into their individual psyches often giving them their own moments of narration to express their feelings and perspectives. It’s a risky narrative technique but Rees weaves it seamlessly throughout the story.
And then you have the acting featuring an entire cast in top form. I mentioned Ron Morgan but there is also Mary J. Blige who gives an eye-opening performance as Hap’s wife Florence. Mulligan, Clarke, and Hedlund each fall right into their characters and the period, and there is a particularly vile (and that’s a compliment) performance from Banks.
“Mudbound” debuted on Netflix with practically no theater release to speak of (minus a handful of screens). Some speculate this could hurt the film come Oscar time. I hope that’s not the case. This film deserves to be in the conversation. It’s a difficult movie but an honest one that isn’t afraid to examine the stains of our past earnestly and without manipulation. It’s handling of poverty, hardship, self-destruction and family dysfunction also wields a piercing edge. It all works together in a deeply penetrating harmony and with striking authenticity that pulls you into this troubled period and never lets you go.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS