Mudbound review: A major awards contender, Dee Rees’ stunning adaptation of the 2008 novel by Hilary Jordan arrives on Netflix.
Mudbound review by Orestes Adam.
Dee Rees’s Mudbound, based on the 2008 novel by Hilary Jordan, is astoundingly ambitious to say the very least. Six distinct voiceover narrations tell the story of two families (one black, one white) in 1940s rural Mississippi as the film simultaneously depicts the struggles of two WWII soldiers, one on land and the other in the sky. Mudbound’s most remarkable feat, aside from its gorgeously composed landscape and arresting performances, is its ability to balance its characterization as it sporadically cuts from not only six different perspectives but also three distinct settings, all of which inevitably converge into mud.
Mudbound opens with brothers Henry (Jason Clarke) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) McAllan as they bury their father amidst a rainstorm. After discovering the land they are burying to be a former slave’s grave, the pair take their father’s corpse into town where they witness a traumatized Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) passing through with his family and ask him to help them. The tension is visible between them and the viewer is already bursting with questions. The film flashbacks to the complex relationship these two families share. Having been scammed into buying a luxurious home that was never for sale to begin with, Henry and his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), along with their two children and openly racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks), are forced to share the same land that the impoverished Jacksons (the black tenders of Henry’s farm) reside on. While Hap and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) are aware of their necessary subservience to the socially superior McAllan’s, complications deepen upon the return of war veterans Jamie and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), and the friendship they form as a result of their shared experiences, much to the chagrin of the town’s traditionalists, Henry and Pappy included.
An argument can be made against the film for refraining from introducing its central relationship (that of Jamie and Ronsel’s) until beyond it’s halfway point, but in the time it takes for the veterans to return home, Dee Rees paints an intimate portrayal of the downtrodden community the characters embody, exploring the landscape, class structures and racial paradigms that exist as holistically as its 135-minute runtime allows. Much of this social commentary is channeled through the characters’ relationship with the land the families share. This land that Henry views as a constant reminder of his failure is the same land that Hap views as a treasurable sign of progress and achievement, his ancestors having never owned land themselves. The dynamic between these two relies entirely on Clarke and Morgan’s performances, which perfectly illustrates the racial hierarchy that they all but directly address. Henry interrupts Hap from time with his family with what sounds like a polite request to perform a certain task, though is clearly a command, while Hap carries out his work with unwavering pride for the hope that things will change.
Too much praise can be directed at these actors for expertly conveying the complexities of each character. Mary J. Blige is unrecognizable and riveting as Florence; while Carey Mulligan externally portrays an obedient housewife, though internally proves that she is willing to break society’s rules to do what is right. Similarly, Garret Hedlund is a fallen angel, a James Dean-type superstar war hero whose PTSD is slowly destroying him, while Jason Mitchell is the perfect son, polite and friendly, yet empty and in need of something more whilst confined in the Deep South. The war that these men survive is the very escape that they long for, particularly for Ronsel who remains frustrated by the fact that the people of the era only forgo their racial differences and are forced to actually progress in wartime.
Beyond the deeply detailed performances and brilliant characterization, it is a testament to cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s skill that mud has never looked so stunning on film. In spite of being a Netflix release, Mudbound begs for the cinematic experience, refusing to hold back on quality in spite of its viewing platform. Morrison captures a land that has the potential to be so beautiful, yet remains empty and barren, just like the community that inhabits it. In addition, editor Mako Kamitsuna commits to the painstaking task of structuring a film of this scope, cutting from dogfights to tank scenes to domestic struggles to wartime romances and then some. All of this is finessed by Dee Rees’s tight directorial control that manages to allow its story to unfold like a novel, though in true cinematic fashion. Like a tale told in the spirit of a progressive John Steinbeck or Mark Twain, Dee Rees’s Mudbound is worth the price of a Netflix subscription alone.
Mudbound review by Orestes Adam, November 2017.
Mudbound is now streaming on Netflix.