Based on the Hillary Jordan novel of the same name, Mudbound tells the story of a black family in the Deep South of the 1940s whose lives are entwined with those of the white family on whose farmland they work. In her third film, director Dee Rees weaves a rich tapestry that explores race relations through a myriad of perspectives, using no less than six different narrators over the course of Mudbound‘s 130-minute running time. It’s a framing device lifted directly from Jordan’s novel, and Rees uses it to great effect, allowing each of these individual stories to paint a vivid portrait of the differences – and the similarities – between both families.
A stoic, soft-spoken preacher who dreams of owning his own parcel of land, Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) works his fingers to the bone from sunup to sundown with the help of his wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their children. The crops they tend belong to Henry McAllen (Jason Clarke), a businessman who recently uprooted his Memphis family – including wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and contemptuous, bigoted “Pappy” (Jonathan Banks) – to a perpetually muddy 200 acres in rural Mississippi.
Henry doesn’t quite share his father’s hostility for the Morgans and their ilk, but he still treats Hap as a subordinate rather than an equal. Laura, on the other hand, is a much gentler soul, frequently admonishing her husband for his crisp interactions with the Morgans – albeit to little effect – and extending small acts of kindness, such as offering Florence a job as her housekeeper, or paying for a physician to treat Hap’s broken leg when he suffers a nasty fall. Henry may view the Morgans as little more than a business investment, but Laura treats them like actual human beings.
When World War II erupts, Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) ships out to join an all-black tank battalion, while Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) becomes an Air Force pilot. Both men return home around the same time, but their experiences couldn’t be more different – while Jamie is called a hero, Ronsel still rides in the back of the bus behind the “Colored” sign, and is forced to leave a local grocery store by the rear entrance after a nasty altercation with Pappy. Ronsel may have been respected by white soldiers on the battlefield, but that respect didn’t follow him back to Mississippi – in fact, the only white person who doesn’t look down on him with disdain is Jamie. As both men struggle to adjust to life after the war, they form an uneasy friendship that blossoms into true brotherhood, which threatens to put both of them on the wrong side of the locals.
Much like his Straight Outta Compton costar, who turned heads in another Sundance hit, Jason Mitchell proves that his performance in the well-received music biopic was just the tip of the iceberg. Tortured by the horrors of war, defiant in the face of bigotry and grateful for his newfound friendship, Mitchell’s portrayal of Ronsel is nothing short of agonizing as he learns the savagery he experienced on the battlefield is no match for the kind that awaits him back home. Equally superb is Hedlund, turning in the best work of his career as he imbues Jamie with a profound sadness that gradually begins to consume him, one bottle at a time. Special mention goes to a nearly unrecognizable Mary J. Blige in a brilliantly understated role as Hap’s compassionate wife, far more taxing than her previous efforts.
In less capable hands, the constantly shifting points of view through which Mudbound unfolds could easily have left the narrative feeling disjointed, but Rees deftly balances each character’s tale with cleverly timed juxtapositions, such as cutting back and forth between Hap’s tumble from a ladder and Ronsel’s hasty escape from a tank as his squadron comes under fire. Whether it’s the narrowed eyes directed at Jamie and Ronsel as they shake hands in the street, or the the smile that dances at the corners of Laura’s mouth whenever she sees Henry’s younger brother, nothing here feels wasted or extraneous. Everything we see is crucial to the story Rees tells, and every scene, every word, every glance is significant.
With only two prior films under her belt, Rees proves herself a master storyteller, fully adept at exploring the complexity of the human condition and the experiences that make us who we are. Breathtaking in both its beauty and its cruelty, Mudbound emerges from the rain-and-blood soaked soil of the Jim Crow South as nothing short of an American epic.