Dee Rees’ first feature film, Pariah, was a fantastic character piece that was well ahead of its time as far as exploring the life of a transgender character, but I doubt it could prepare anyone for Rees’ take on such a rich and robust period drama like Mudbound.
Adapted by Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 debut novel, Mudbound is the story of two families over a number of years before and after America entered World War II. We meet brothers Henry and Jamie McAllan (Jason Clarke and Garrett Hedlund) as they’re attempting to bury their father as the pouring rain turns the ground around them into mud. When Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) pulls up with his family, Henry begs Hap for help and only gets a stern look as a response. It will be almost two hours before we’ll have any idea what that look is about.
The story then goes back in time and shifts perspective to Henry’s wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) in the days when she first met and married Henry. The narrative continues to follow Laura before shifting to Hap and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) as they raise their kids, including their eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who’s called off to serve his country as America enters the war.
When Henry decides to become a farmer, he convinces Laura to move their family to Mississippi, where they end up living in a makeshift house in the rainiest area of the Delta, just as Jamie is called off to war as well. Henry brings along his cranky, racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks), who is the catalyst for much of the problems that will occur between the two families.
The amount of actual plot there is to discuss gives you a general idea of the complexities of the story Rees is trying to tell. The shifts in the narrative might be one of Mudbound’s biggest drawbacks, and because Rees has to set up so much backstory, the first half doesn’t feel particularly focused, although that rarely becomes too big of a problem.
There’s only a small degree of romance within this story — essentially the subdued triangle between Laura, her husband Henry, and his much more cultured brother Jamie — and fortunately, it never overwhelms the more important story at work here, about racism in the South. There also aren’t any of the emotional fireworks one might expect in this type of film, as Rees handles the film’s dramatic tone with an even keel.
This isn’t exactly the most straight-forward film in terms of how the story is told, as the narrative shifts from one character to the next, even following Ronsel and Jamie into battle. Rees tells the story of the two families fairly linearly, but always offering enough variety that few will be bored, and there’s always something to keep the viewer invested. Personally, I liked watching Jamie flying in air battles, and when the story is told from Laura’s perspective. Ronsel’s return to Mississippi also allows Rees to explore the dichotomy of the brave African-American soldiers who returned to the South to face even worse racism than before they left. When Ronsel and Jamie become fast friends, it adds another level to the fractured relationship between their families.
It’s not often you have a cast so good it’s difficult to single out one particular actor that really stands out, not even Carey Mulligan, who tends to be the primary focus of most of the movies in which she appears. Jason Mitchell brings a lot of depth to Ronsel, as does Rob Morgan as Hap and Mary J. Blige as his wife, and their side of the story tends to carry far more weight.
Pappy’s overt racism isn’t the only thing creating friction between the families, as Henry’s general attitude towards Hap and his family, and the way he talks to them, keeps making things worse. We eventually return to that opening scene, and we’re able to watch it from a completely different perspective than the first time. The film does get pretty grim at times, but at least it tries to offer some optimism by the end.
The story of these interconnected families is enhanced by the use of traditional songs from the era and a gorgeous score by Tamar-kali that never threatens to overpower what we’re watching on screen.
Mudbound is certainly a triumph by Rees as a filmmaker, showing she can handle a wide range of characters and settings to create a cohesive story. Working from such an incredible script with such a well-rounded cast frequently makes up for the more erratic storytelling decisions.
Mudbound is now playing in select cities and streaming on Netflix.
Running time: 134 minutes
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor