SYNOPSIS: Two Mississippi families -- one black, one white -- confront the brutal realities of prejudice, farming and friendship in a divided World War II era.
If Netflix were ever going to stand a chance at getting into the Best Picture Oscar race, ‘Mudbound’ is as good a bet as any. An old-fashioned sprawling World War II-era drama set in the Deep South, it is a compelling portrait of race, class and complex social tectonics told with surprising subtlety and nuance.
Adapted by Dee Rees (who co-wrote the script with Virgil Williams) from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel, it opens in media res with two brothers Henry (Jason Clarke) and Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) trying to bury their father on their farm by digging a grave during a rainstorm. While they struggle, an African American family rides by with their possessions strapped to the back of their buggy. Henry approaches the patriarch Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) for help, and though their reluctance is written on their faces, Hap nevertheless dismounts to assist them.
What had previously transpired between the McAllans and the Jacksons is the subject of the next two hours, which chronicles the fates of these two families living on the same Mississippi farm. Henry is the owner, having moved his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their two daughters from their quiet suburban home to a rundown house on that muddy piece of land in order to find his own independence. The Jacksons are sharecroppers on the same piece of land, whose dream of owning it are dashed after Henry buys the whole plot up. With the advent of the United States’ involvement in WWII, Jamie enlists as a fighter pilot while one of Hap’s sons Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) is assigned to the all-black 761st Tank Battalion.
Aside from the occasional scenes contrasting Jamie’s trauma from losing his co-pilot to enemy fire up in the sky with that of Ronsel’s newfound respect among the European villagers he liberates from the grip of the Nazis, the bulk of the first hour is spent intertwining the day-to-day lives of the McAllans and the Jacksons. When their daughters develop whooping cough, the McAllans reach out to Hap’s wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) to nurse the pair back to health, eventually staying on in the household as a maid for the salary. Hap suffers an accident one day that leaves him with a broken leg, and Laura calls in a doctor from town without Henry’s knowledge to treat him. On the other hand, Henry’s father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) starts associating with some openly racist folk in town, setting the stage for a confrontation between the two families that will bind them in tragedy.
While advancing the story linearly, Rees allows each one of these characters to voice their innermost thoughts in turn, so that we learn intimately Henry’s restless ambition, Laura’s simmering discontent, Hap’s pent-up frustration and last but not least Florence’s steely determination. To Rees’ credit, she has a great eye for bringing out character dynamics in small, intimate scenes, building a rich tapestry through everyday interactions and minutiae. Sadly, some of that is lost in the second half of the film, which develops the kinship between Jamie and Ronsel after both return to war and bond over their wartime experience. As much as it does demonstrate acutely the destructive effects of war on both of them, the film ends up being so singularly focused that it neglects the other characters – most significantly, Laura’s presence is unfairly diminished, especially since it is her perspective that shapes the storytelling most in the earlier half.
Still, there is no denying the emotional power of the finale, which reveals not just why the Jacksons are leaving but also how Pappy had died. The sheer bigotry and barbarism of the Ku Klux Klans are on stark display here, a chilling and poignant reminder of the face of racism that is nothing less than a humiliating scourge on the American identity. But Rees is a dramatist, not an exploiter, and it is truly praiseworthy that she never does resort to depicting the events – not even with the climactic lynching that is sure to evoke strong reactions – through a blinkered lens; rather, she wants her audience to care first and foremost about her characters, and trusts that they are intelligent enough to come to their own conclusions about the circumstances they are forced to contend with.
It certainly helps that Rees has a great cast on board, but the standout is undoubtedly the R&B singer Blige, who disappears into the role of a mother aching for the return of her son as well as that of a matriarch who knows exactly where and what to direct her energies (not her rage) towards. This is a wonderful acting showcase through and through, and each one of the performances are as fine as we’ll seen from these actors.
Too often, films like ‘Mudbound’ tend to play up ‘black suffering’ in order to appeal to the emotions of their viewers, and it is therefore refreshing that Rees never feels the compulsion to do that. In fact, this is first and foremost a story of two families of intertwined destinies, with its emphasis on the relationships between them – and in that regard, the film succeeds in making each one of them register in truly affecting ways. Like we said at the start, if Netflix ever stood a chance at getting into the Oscar race, ‘Mudbound’ is as good a bet as any; after all, regardless of studio or distributor, this is one of the finest dramas we’ve seen this year.
Review by Gabriel Chong