Through no fault of its own, Mudbound is the latest American period drama with racial tension on its mind. The reaction from many may be to either rally around it merely for existing or putting the film off with intentions to get to it eventually because it’s been automatically deemed important. I guess it is fortunate that Netflix will be distributing the movie so anyone can see it fairly easily, but the more significant takeaway should be how good the film is. With shifting perspectives between six strong lead performances, Mudbound is a compelling and evocative drama that of course ties into the plight of people today. It may be all too regular to find films like this arriving during awards season (despite premiering at Sundance back in January), but that shouldn’t speak against its quality.
Set in 1940s Mississippi, the film revolves around a white family, the McAllan’s, that has relocated to a rural area of the state to work on a farm, with a black family, the Jackson’s, who has served as sharecroppers on the land for generations. Given the time and place, there are strict social barriers placed between the two families, but a friendship develops between two of the men from different sides who served in WWII and then returned to the Jim Crow South.
The terrific cast includes Carey Mulligan as Laura, the matriarch of the McAllan’s, who is slowly becoming disengaged from her husband. That husband is Henry (Jason Clarke), whose own stubbornness and old fashion sensibilities hold him from embracing a more progressive world order. He’s given no help by his father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), who is all racist with no time to be a cuddly curmudgeon.
Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige star as Hap and Florence Jackson, an honorable husband and wife who do plenty to face the challenges of racism and social standings while tending to their family. Where certain noble films falter to make characters like these anything more than props, Mudbound finds a sense of authenticity in all the interactions they have and the steps they take to fit into the world they have been placed in.
More than just noble negroes, Morgan is terrific in how he utilizes a familiar quiet gaze to enhance his character. At the same time, Blige (as well as Mulligan) is made out to be more than just a struggling wife with some contempt for new scenarios presented to her family. There’s a level of motherly gravitas that feels natural and effectively opens up the film to be more than just a display of men with power acting out.
Jason Mitchell is Ronsell Jackson, the son who went off to war, became a sergeant in a tank brigade, and returned with no respect given to him, despite efforts put forth in service to his country. Lastly, there’s Garrett Hedlund as Jamie McAllan, Henry’s educated brother who also served in the war as a B-25 Bomber pilot and returned with no qualms for his fellow man, but suffers from images and feelings of the war he can’t shake. It’s the friendship between Jamie and Ronsell that allows a plot to take its shape, but Mudbound gets a lot out of playing like a careful character study through much of its runtime.
Co-writer/director Dee Rees (Pariah) adapted Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name. She had every intention to do justice to the material as well as capture a mood that easily fits with the many contemporary news stories that have defined a portion of what’s going on in 2010’s America (if only it could be reduced to one decade). The result is an excellent film that makes good use of its low-budget to keep a focus on the families involved and why tensions are high. It’s impressive for a movie that needs to spend some time showing some WWII-related events but all the more effective.
The work done by the film to incorporate each of the lead characters means getting a chance to be inside the head of all of them. Because of this, in addition to watching how some cope with racism, we also see the effects of PTSD and the struggles a wife can have in a household dominated by a classically conservative outlook on gender roles. It may sound like Mudbound is taking on a lot and the 132-minute runtime does suggest as much, but even when considering the potential tragedy coming to at least some of these characters, the film rarely falters in the presentation.
Rachel Morrison’s cinematography helps tremendously, as the film feels like it continually places mud on screen. That may seem like an obvious visual concept, but having the constant image of wet dirt and watching how it weighs these characters down or holds them back is a great way to explore what each of them goes through and where their reactions take them. And since the film is not about to work as a cure for the issues in American, one can only hope the continual visuals found in this movie make some effect on those who do come across it.
Mudbound finds plenty to say in a way that’s never exploitative or too earnest for its own good. Justice is not delivered in an entirely satisfying way for these characters. It’s a matter of watching excellent performances from all involved and getting a great feel from the assured direction by Rees. I’m aware a sequel to the novel is in the works. Given the quality of this film, while possibly tragic as well, returning to this world would be an interesting venture and one I also wouldn’t want to hold off on when it comes to these “important” Netflix releases.