Dee Rees has created a densely-woven tale of poverty, race, and family. Mudbound is a calling card for Dee Rees as an important emerging voice in American Cinema. It walks the nearly impossible tightrope of being both literary and cinematic. In many ways, Mudbound is the story of America boiled down to a microcosmic level.
Based on a book of the same name by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound looks at the lives of two families who live together on the same stretch of land. The McAllans, a white family and the Jacksons, a black family are both waylaid by circumstance; albeit one family by coincidence and the other by the color of their skin. The two families will become abruptly intertwined. A series of events that spans decades will lead one family to tragedy and despair while the other will emerge scarred but not broken.
Rees takes a very big risk by allowing us inside the heads of her main characters with voice-over narration. Here, it’s not a lazy plot device but a way into these character’s complex psyches. The narrations are searingly private and deeply felt. They add another layer of perspective as rather than substituting words for action or character development.
It doesn’t hurt that the dialogue is a hauntingly poetic prose. The words will drift into your ears and seep into your dreams. Rees co-wrote the adaptation with Virgil Williams. The duo turn what is in essence a sprawling multifaceted tale spanning decades into an intimate portrait that feels at times like characters giving witness to the horrors and joys of their lives.
Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) is a quiet man with a dream. He wishes to own a farm. One night after he and his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) have finished lovemaking he rolls over and tells her he has bought a new house and they will be moving in three weeks. Laura, a schoolteacher and devoted wife, is taken aback by the sudden news.
Laura tells us of how she met Henry and how they feel in love. It is a sad but somehow sweet reminiscence. She admits to us she is more in love with his love for her than anything else. Laura marries Henry anyway. He has money and she feels as if he is her only hope of “escaping the margins.”
The only thing Henry loves more than Laura is his younger brother Jamie (Garret Hetland). Unlike the staid and serious Henry, Jamie is boisterous, imaginative, and charismatic. A lesser movie would have focused on the obvious if not cliched love triangle that will form between these three. But Mudbound has far more on its mind than just simple melodrama. There is tension between the three but it is subtle and restrained.
As they arrive to their new home Henry discovers he has been scammed. The man he bought the house from, sold it behind his back. Henry owns the land but not the big white house. He must move his family, which now include two little girls and also his father Pappy (Jonathan Banks), into the farmhouse. Henry must live in the field with the sharecroppers and other itinerant tenants.
The Jacksons are a family of tenants on Henry’s land. Hap (Rob Morgan) the proud patriarch hopes to one day own the land he lives on outright. A man of God, he is also the preacher at the local church he and his congregation are building. Much like Henry, he has dreams of owning a farm and working the land. Rees cleverly shows how, while the two men are both essentially in the same situation, they are in fact in two different worlds. Henry, since he owns the land, feels entitled to Hap’s labor. Hap is helpless and can do little but go along.
Hap’s wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) is a fiercely quiet but intuitive force of nature. Blige herself gives what can only be described as a towering performance. At first she is reluctant to help the McAllans. Her own mother was a nursemaid and Florence vowed to be a mother to her own kids and hers alone. When Laura’s daughters come down with whooping cough, she begs for Florence’s help. Thus, Florence begins to become entwined with the McAllan household as well.
The McAllans offer her a job and she feels powerless to refuse it. “We don’t belong to them.” Hap says when he discovers Florence has accepted. She argues that it’s only temporary until they can save enough to own their land again.
What ties the two families together is not the land. What unites them is the second world war. Jamie joins the fight and becomes a bombardier while the Jackson’s oldest son Ronsel joins a tank infantry. Sometimes you can see an image so simple and startling it takes your breath is taken away. I don’t know why I was so moved by the image of a black family listening to President’s Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor speech, but I was.
How have we never seen this image countless times before? The image of a young black man saying goodbye to his family as he goes off to fight for his country? This is by no means the first time we’ve seen this image but it feels so unique and rare that it feels like a first time. Rees has a great audacity to her storytelling. She shows us the frustrated fury of Ronsel as he returns home a Sergeant and a hero. But in the eyes of a locals he is something less than human.
There are many films that talk about racism but the majority of them are stores told by white people and tend to aim at the surface issues of race. Mudbound gets at the intimate issues. The stress and psychological pain of realizing the possibilities of life abroad, only to be reminded that the land of opportunity does not include you in its dreams and hopes. The everyday horrors of how quickly a life of independence and freedom can be eroded into a life of hard limits and servitude.
These themes tie into the notions of class as well. While the McAllans are not rich, they were once. Even though they may be poor now, they do own land and they can walk through the front door of any establishment. The Jacksons have suffered similar luck as the McAllans. Hap had bought a mule but was forced to kill it due to lockjaw. But the two live vastly separate existences. Both are poor but the Jacksons must suffer the yoke of countless other oppressions both visible and invisible.
Rees and her camera woman Rachel Morrison have crafted a deeply felt and intricate American tragedy. Mudbound is filled to the brim with genuine humanity and stark beauty. There are sweeping aerial fights and intense tank battles. Their intensity is derived from the fact that Morrison only allows us a from view inside Jamie’s cockpit and Ronsel’s tank. We see the battle play out through their eyes.
Morrison’s camera work rivals that of Roger Deakins or Edward Lachman. She captures the breadth of the South and the claustrophobic atmosphere of a rundown shack. Some movies make us feel the heat or cold—Rees and Morrison makes us feel the mud. It is a remarkably gorgeous film that is being given short shrift by its Netflix home. Mudbound should be seen on the largest screen possible so every lush detail may be seen with proper scope.
Mary J. Blige gives a wonderfully internalized performance on par with Kristen Stewart’s turn in Personal Shopper. Rob Morgan as Hap more than holds his own against Blige. Their scenes together are magnetic not because of any great dramatic flourishes, but because they feel alive. Characters so often are well-written but rarely are they a combination of well written and alive.
Rees has crafted an American epic filled with the richness, subtlety, and authenticity of Langston Hughes, Mark Twain, Robert Altman, or Spike Lee. Everything, from top to bottom, works. There will be moments in which you are sure Mudbound will be a complete tragedy. Yet, while tragic and horrible events do unfold, it ends with hope and strength. Mudbound reminds us of the resilience and hope of the American spirit.