Mudbound is that rare film where literary and cinematic techniques are not at odds with each other, where they, in fact, engage and complement each other in ways that are rewarding to the viewer, especially after multiple viewings regardless of platform (Netflix is simultaneously releasing Mudbound theatrically and on its digital streaming services). It is ambitious in scope and, at the same time, intimate. It is deliberately paced, it takes its own sweet time developing story and characters, focusing on the smallest details and actions. Its resolution is wrenching, tragic, inevitable and yet hopeful. It celebrates resilience and empathy in the face of violence. But, most importantly, it is that rare contemporary American independent film that tackles this country’s dark history with sensitivity. Mudbound establishes African-American director Dee Rees as a voice to be reckoned with after only three films (Pariah and the made for HBO, Emmy-winning biopic Bessie were her previous directorial efforts).
Adapted by Rees and Chicago producer and writer Virgil Williams from Hillary Jordan’s novel set in 1940s Mississippi, Mudbound opens with the muddy burial of the virulently racist Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks), by his two sons, Henry (Jason Clarke) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). “I ain’t burying my father in no slave’s grave,” yells Henry when they finally find a spot. And yet, Henry has no qualms in asking Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) to help him bury the casket when he sees Hap ride by with his family in their horse and buggy. Hap’s and his family’s reaction hints at the history between both families —one white, the other black. A history that slowly unfolds before our eyes as multiple voices —Laura’s (Carey Mulligan), Henry’s wife; Jamie’s, Hap’s and Hap’s wife Florence (an unrecognizable Mary J. Blige)— begin to tell it, the movie shifting points of view until they are all threaded together in a giant, bloody quilt.
Laura is saved from spinsterhood by Henry who sees her as wife material. Without telling Laura, Henry buys a farm and a house in Mississippi, uprooting her and her daughters from her more comfortable life in Tennessee. The Jacksons also dream of owning their own piece of land but their dreams come crashing down when Henry takes immediate possession of the land where Hap, his family and neighbors began to build a community and a church. They are now not only his tenants but also his employees at his beck and call whenever he needs them, even if it is in the middle of the night. The land itself is unforgiving, pelted by hard rains and floods, the atmosphere drenched in stifling heat and humidity.
Race and racism may foreground the film, but so does, class. For the land is also shared and worked by poor white men and women who may feel privileged because of the color of their skin but who live as precariously as the African American men and women they disdain. These poor white folk are treated indifferently by Henry: he fires one of his white workers, a philandering man, even though his wife, Vera, is several months pregnant. Rees and Williams devote as much time to Vera’s story as everybody else’s, showing us a richer, far more complex view of the South than what we are used to.
Jamie and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) find a way out of this merciless terrain by enlisting in the military: Jamie in the Air Force and Ronsel in the Army, assigned to the 761st Tank Battalion, comprised of African-American soldiers under the command of General George Patton. Ronsel is taken by surprise by the treatment he receives in Europe: he is no longer black, he is just another American welcomed with open arms. The battle scenes are wisely kept to a minimum; in fact, their staging is rather minimalist, the camera tightly focused on Ronsel’s and Jamie’s faces as they see action and friends die in front of them, their bodies blown-up in half. Both men return home from war, psychologically scarred. For Ronsel it’s worst: he is not welcomed as a hero but as a second-class citizen. He has to deal with his country’s bigotry after being treated as a hero in Europe. So, you can’t blame him if he hesitates in shaking Jamie’s hand when their paths cross back home. They eventually find common ground in their shared war experiences but their friendship becomes disruptive in a land where blacks and whites “should know their place.”
“Violence is part and parcel of country life,” Laura says in voiceover at one point. The violence here goes beyond the merely physical: it’s also verbal, psychological and financial. Even Laura’s miscarriage halfway through the film can be seen as an act of violence, one perpetrated by this ruthless and heartless environment. For Hap’s congregation, religion offers the only succor and even that is not enough when whites express their privilege in so many ways. And yet, there is room for sublime acts of empathy, even when they are shrouded by privilege and oppression. Florence decides to take care of Laura’s children when they are afflicted with whooping cough not only because Henry called in the middle of the night and gave her no choice, not only because he offered Florence more money to do so, but because it was the right thing to do, because Florence, too, is a mother. Why should children suffer for the sins of their father and the community and culture they come from? Laura later returns the favor when she hires a doctor behind Henry’s back to take care of Hap’s broken leg. Henry’s response? The silent treatment.
Rees not only relies on multiple voices and points of view to bring Jordan’s novel to life. Rees and editor Mako Kimatsuna use editing the same way a writer would use punctuation marks and ellipsis for effect. They cut between Hap’s falling of a ladder and breaking his leg to his son’s tank unit going into battle to mark a pivotal point in their respective stories. They brilliantly cut from Henry and his family listening to Roosevelt’s famous “Day that will live in infamy” speech on the radio to the Jackson family listening to the same broadcast to foreshadow how this imminent war will eventually have an impact on their lives. In another director’s hands these parallel correlations would have come off as contrived, as somebody hitting us over the head with the obvious. In Rees’ hands they point toward deeper truths, they lay the groundwork for what’s to come.
Mudbound delivers one of the best ensembles, if not THE best ensemble acting, of the year. Each actor, no matter how large or small the part, brings his and her A-game to the film. Not a single wrong note is hit. Even a character like Pappy, who could have easily turned into caricature, is transformed by Jonathan Banks into a complex character who is symptomatic of a greater disease. However, if I were to pick one actor in this remarkable cast, that would be Mary J. Blige who delivers a performance that is both understated and tough as nails.
There is some truth to the hoary cliché that “they don’t make movies like they used to.” Mudbound stands out in a field full of studio blockbusters and Sundance-friendly hipsterish white middle-class indies. It is uniquely American, it holds a mirror to history and refuses to simplify it. Rees, Williams, cast and crew embrace this story and its portrait of a complex, contradictory and all too human country. Mudbound is more than a cinematic triumph; it is simply one of the best films of the year and the decade…and a much needed balm for these violently antagonistic and highly tribalist times.
Mudbound is available through Netflix’s streaming services beginning November 17. However, if you want to see it on the big screen in Chicago, you will only be able to do so at the iPic theatres in South Barrington, 100 W. Higgins Rd.