Director: Dee Rees
Cast: Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige
Running time: 134 minutes
Against the backdrop of rural Jim Crow America, two families – one black, one white – struggle with the hardships of making a living off the land. When members of each family return home after serving in WWII, there is elation, depression, forbidden friendship, and racial friction afoot.
In the same week when Justice was given to us in Leagues (Aquaman…leagues…ocean…yep?…no?), little justice is to be found in the fields, towns, and farmhouses of 1940’s Mississippi in director Dee Rees’ impressive period piece, Mudbound.
Originally premiering at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in January, Mudbound has taken the distribution road less travelled after being snatched up by Netflix for a reported $12.5 million. With its widespread release on the platform last Friday – coinciding with a short cinema stint in a handful of locations – Mudbound is certainly not the first film to go down such a path, but it is certainly one of the finest.
Washed with the somewhat ironic beauty of Rachel Morrison’s exquisite cinematography, Rees – who has been doing the rounds on the indie movie circuit for a number of years now – has baked here an authentic, honest, largely sobering slice of American history that, at a hefty 134 minutes, is both sweeping epic and granular character study.
From its outset, Mudbound exhibits its very novelistic roots. Intertwining the narrations of six of its protagonists – replacing the need for lengthy visual exposition – Rees’ film paints intricate snapshots of rural family life from varying vantage points, as the country is drawn into global conflict. Henry McAllan (Clarke) struggles to make prosperous his life of agriculture when he impulsively buys a farm and swiftly moves his wife, Laura (Mulligan), and their two daughters there; along with his widowed, virulently racist father (Jonathan Banks). Down the road, tenant farmer Hap Jackson (Morgan) and his family – including wife Florence (the mightily impressive Mary J. Blige) – has dreams of one day owning the land Hap’s ancestors have worked for generations. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbour bombings, Henry’s younger, womanising brother Jamie (Hedlund) and Hap’s eldest son Ronsel (Mitchell) both enlist in the fighting overseas.
Each has their own tale to tell; their own hardships to endure; their own experiences to share; their own demons to exorcise. And Rees plays off a potentially overly-convoluted narrative style commendably here: patiently mapping the film’s timeline across a number of years, giving each one of her players their fair share of fleshy complexity. Mudbound is a not a film of one protagonist, but of many, that rarely falls back on conventional archetypes; instead offering up a rich character pallet on which grey (and it’s fifty shades – sorry, sorry) is most prominent. Characters fall in and out of likeability; some change for better, some for worse, and some not at all. It’s a candid depiction of an at times warm, but otherwise brutal existence during which Rees frequently holds up the proverbial mirror to her audience – and, in 2017, the reflection is as harrowing and alarming as it’s ever been.
Despite boasting an impressive, firing-on-all-cylinders cast list of its own, it’s a shame that Mudbound’s release will likely fall under the shadow of a certain towering, bulky, inconvenient DCU-shaped boulder. But dig around on Netflix, and you’ll quickly find a compelling film with a timely warning that might have just sown enough seeds to produce an impressive crop come awards season.