by Ken Bakely
The unrelenting sprawl of the rural property on which Dee Rees’ Mudbound is set matches the considerable scale and impending tone of the film itself. As the story examines a series of cross-sections – white landowners against black workers, wartime intensity against peacetime traumas, and colorblind friendship against longstanding prejudices – we pull back and look at a mural of numerous perspectives and incompatible visions. They will clash. Yet the skill with which Rees presents each event gives the movie a sense of reflection, adding another layer of conflict, one which goes below the surface and pushes deep.
First, the people. In the early 1940s, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), move from Memphis to rural Mississippi, and buy a farm forty miles south of Greenville. The family has been based out of the area for years. This is evidenced by the constant presence of Henry’s dashing brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and father, known only as Pappy (Jonathan Banks), an old-school white Southerner with a bitter, unrelenting racism to match. Also nearby are a black family, the Jacksons, which have been tenant farmers in the region for as long as anyone can remember. The interactions between the two clans are restricted to only the most absolutely necessary moments. When Laura meets the Florence (Mary J. Blige), the Jackson family matriarch, who provides medical care for the McAllans’ sick children, there’s a spark of warmth, casting against a solid freeze.
Then, the war, and that which comes after. Pearl Harbor occurs, and a shocked country reacts. A McAllan – Jamie – enlists, almost concurrently with a Jackson – Ronsel (Jason Mitchell). What’s admirable here is that Rees does not turn Mudbound into a war film with a domestic framing device, but rather takes this monumental conflict, and turns it into a kind of inverted foreshadowing. Reference is made to the relative kindness that the Allied civilians feel towards even the African American soldiers. Yet sooner or later, both men must come back home, with experiences both highly different in specifics, yet similar in their shared duty and difficulty.
Would it be fair to say that Ronsel was treated better when his life was at imminent risk in war-torn Europe? He believes so, because he’s not much safer back in Mississippi. The townsfolk, Pappy McAllan in particular, are keen to act as if nothing has happened, and are quick to threaten him back into being silent and invisible. Mudbound doesn’t ever redeem its racist characters. It only shows their antagonism grow to increasingly fanatical heights. It doesn’t pretend that any singular event would place such entrenched ideologies on a sudden path to change. When there is a “resolution,” coming after an exhausting climax, it is a form that is many things, but certainly not satisfying in a traditional sense.
And from there, we find the nuances in Mudbound’s philosophy. In a setting so dominated by a binary view, of literal black and white, it looks into the impossibilities that the survival of something outside the lines would face, without falling into cheapness itself. Jamie and Ronsel bear the horrors of their direct pasts. Jamie turns to alcoholism, and Ronsel is struck by everything he had to leave behind. It’s not a perfect companionship, as it’s birthed out of a desperate, emotional necessity, but it is there, and it’s very much noted by the powers that be. Hedlund and Mitchell understand the separate parts their performances must hold in creating this central conflict. The McAllan must try and maintain the status quo with his family, while the Jackson has to support his own, albeit with much more subservient surrounding dynamic.
We see the end coming like a barreling train from far away. And it’s the follow-up to a staggering climax where things start to fall apart a little. Mudbound nearly falls victim to a clean-cut conclusion straight out of a weaker movie. But Rees keeps her hand on the wheel, and even though it’s somewhat bumpy, she finds a fitting solace. The movie is fascinating all the way through. Well-placed voiceovers from multiple characters serve not as dull exposition, but as a needed accompaniment. Rachel Morrison’s rich cinematography blends expressive faces with stark, rough exteriors, furthering the idea of conflicted characters thrust into a harsh environment. What a haunting and evocative film. It probes its themes with great care and thoroughness, and shows us a vivid portrait of persistent humanity.