Mudbound Review

A racially tense southern-set period drama, “Mudbound” has a familiar tone and perspective, a vibe reminiscent of a more traditional era of cinematic storytelling. Yet that’s not to diminish the work of Dee Rees, whose feature follow-up to 2011’s “Pariah” is beautifully shot and firmly grounded in honest reality and modest hope.

Based on a novel by Hillary Jordan, “Mudbound” follows a white family and black family living on a farm on the Mississippi Delta preceding, during and immediately following World War II. The white family, Henry (Jason Clarke) and Laura McAllen (Carey Mulligan) buy the farm to fulfill Henry’s dream and inherent tenants in the Jackson family who do much of the labor. Both families have a soldier in the war, the Jacksons’ oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). When the men come home, preexisting tensions between the families flare up, especially as the two young men become friends despite the racial animosity in the town, especially the attitude of McAllen’s grandfather.

Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams give us the McAllens’ backstory and some interesting scenes in which they use (perhaps unknowingly) the privilege and upper hand they have in their dealings with the Jacksons, but the return of Ronsel and Jamie herald the coming of the film’s most compelling storyline and what ultimately gives the film purpose.

Everything about the film clicks when you see these two men, who are struggling to adapt to life back in America, bond over their traumatic experiences that their families and neighbors cannot understand. Jamie’s time as a fighter pilot helped him to see past prejudice, and Ronsel’s time on the front lines and being seen as an equal in Europe made him less willing to put up with the same racist divides and provocations in the South. The script’s use of narration tethers us to their experiences and makes their companionship meaningful, even as we sense something will surely go wrong.

Other characters get narration voiceovers as well, but even though Laura has a fairly compelling story and Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige) Jackson earn our sympathies with ease, the film comes alive when it focuses on Jamie and Ronsel. All the effort the script spends to tell the other characters’ stories fades into the periphery. After you’ve seen the film, it feels as though all these subplots were merely distractions. Fortunately, the way those two characters are handled and the way the story smartly wraps itself around them in the second half is enough to carry the film. Undoubtedly, when people think back on this movie in the future, that relationship will be what they recall.

This “Fox and the Hound” type story has some old archetypes engrained in its narrative bones, but Rees approaches it in earnest. Maybe it’s just the way she and cinematographer Rachel Morrison capture the dirt and grit of these characters’ circumstances. Or it could be the way the script avoids gravitating toward any conventions of good and evil. Yes, some characters are good and some bad, but some are in between – the bystanders who don’t want to cause any trouble, the victims who do not stand up for themselves. This spectrum reflects the reality of pre-Civil Rights America and “Mudbound” gets that context right.

Yet even amidst the stark realities, the film shows moments of humanity and kindness and is remarkably hopeful. When we think about the South in the first half the 20th century, we often think about Jim Crow and the systems and attitudes that divided us and oppressed black people. We assume this tension was pervasive and don’t give a though to the surely many instances of cooperation, unity and brotherhood. “Mudbound” depicts a confluence of both these forces in a profound way. Much fat could be trimmed off, but the core of it is great filmmaking and storytelling.

4/5 Stars

 

Mudbound
Directed by Dee Rees
Written by Dee Rees, Virgil Williams, Hillary Jordan (novel)
Starring: Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan

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