Adapted from the novel of the same name (as written by Hilary Jordan and published in 2008), Mudbound is the latest offering from writer/director Dee Rees. Following the release of her 2011 Sundance Film Festival breakout hit Pariah – an LGBTQI coming of age film based on Rees’ original 2007 short – Rees has transitioned into directing historical fare on the small screen, with projects like the HBO TV movie Bessie and ABC mini-series When We Rise. With Mudbound, her second non-televised feature length directorial effort, Reese continues this exploration of America’s social, cultural, and racial heritage through the visual arts. The resulting movie here further establishes Rees as a budding auteur to watch for, armed with a unique voice and creative sensibility. Fueled by compelling performances and compassionate storytelling, Mudbound is a powerful examination of American society in the aftermath of WWII.
Mudbound‘s story begins in the year 1939, as one Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) meets and courts his wife-to-be Laura (Carey Mulligan), a fellow southerner who was born and raised for city life. As the second World War draws to a close overseas, Henry decides to move his family – including, Laura, their two daughters, and Henry’s father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) – away from the comforts of their home in Memphis and take up farming in the Mississippi Delta, instead. However, things don’t go the way that Henry had planned and the McAllans soon find themselves struggling to adjust to the rural lifestyle, in a place where the frequent rain often leaves them stranded in acres of mud and water.
Sharing the farmland with the McAllans are one Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Bilge), black farmers whose family has worked the land for generations and who are actively in search of their own dream of happiness. For the most part, however, the McAllans and Jacksons are able to keep the peace with one another, in spite of the race-based hierarchy that they are expected to operate by. Everything then changes when Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the Jacksons’ grown son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) return home from WWII, in the process bonding over their similar experiences and forming a friendship that will forever impact their lives – and the lives of their families.
The adapted Mudbound screenplay by Rees and Virgil Williams (Criminal Minds) retains much of its literary value of its source material, even as it translates the substance of Jordan’s original book into the language of cinema. It does so by exploring its narrative from multiple vantage points, using voiceover and internal monologues from different characters to paint a richer and more nuanced portrait of the people who occupy its historical Southern setting. By somewhat literally giving a voice to the players who are otherwise expected to keep their feelings and thoughts private – by those who outrank them on the social hierarchy in the film’s version of 1940s America – Mudbound offers a more insightful examination of how differences in race and class inform the relationships and interactions between its protagonists. The movie itself is something of a old-fashioned melodrama that follows a pretty clear trajectory, but Mudbound‘s willingness to examine its larger storyline from more than one perspective and paint its conflicts in shade of grey rather than black and white, are what allow that narrative formula to work here.
Mudbound is also rich in atmosphere, using its mud and water motif to craft a vivid picture of working-class life in the Mississippi Delta. Thanks to the often painterly cinematography by Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station, Dope) and meticulous production design by David J. Bomba (who also worked on Netflix’s upcoming western series Godless), most everything from the general stores to the farming cabins of Mudbound feels as authentic and believably lived-in as its meant to. While the vast majority of the film takes place in the U.S. South, it does include scenes set across the pond in war-torn Europe, expanding the scope and scale of the story here in the process. This is also the area where, admittedly, Mudbound comes up short with respect to craftsmanship; the WWII sequences lack the realism of the rest of the film and feel more staged by comparison. This isn’t a major issue of course, seeing as Mudbound focuses more on the experiences of soldiers coming home after fighting in WWII, but it’s nevertheless an aspect that leaves room for improvement.
Being a film that explores what life was like for soldiers returning home to the U.S. after WWII, Mudbound doesn’t shy away from addressing the subject of PSTD head-on. The different ways in which soldiers coped with the condition – as a result of factors like their individual personalities, as well as their social class and race – is examined directly here through the characters of Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson. Hedlund and Mitchell rise to the occasion by delivering two of the best performances of their still-young careers here, as the friendship that forms between their war veterans ultimately serves as the heart of the film. While the dynamics between the other members of the McAllan and Jackson families are fascinating in their own right and receive the bulk of attention during Mudbound‘s first act, the focus shifts to Jamie and Ronsel thereafter, and it’s their story thread that proves to be the most impactful and best developed, in the end.
While Mudbound has some trouble paying off all of its narrative threads and characters storylines equally, the journey along the way is always engaging thanks in no small amount to the performances from the film’s ensemble. Respected character actors like Morgan, Mulligan, Bilge, and Clarke are all strong in their respective roles here, playing everyday people who have very different outlooks on the world and their heritage (due in no small part to the difference in privilege that they have enjoyed, or not enjoyed, over their lifetimes). Similarly, Banks is as great as ever playing the role of Pappy, a character who threatens to descend into stereotype (with his toxic sense of masculinity and racial bigotry), but ends up being more of a creepily realistic antagonist than a cartoonish villain.
On the whole, Mudbound makes for an excellent historical melodrama, as well as a sensitive examination of issues like post-war trauma and cultural values through the lens of race and class. It might not be quite as innovative and/or inventive as some of this year’s other buzzed-about awards season contenders (see films like The Shape of Water and Call Me By Your Name), but Mudbound is a worthy addition to the larger Oscar conversation and gives Netflix its own horse in that race. Being available through the streaming service means that Mudbound will be more readily accessible to a wider audience than it would have been otherwise, but it’s also worth checking out on the big screen for those who happen to live near a theater that is showing it.
Mudbound is now playing in select U.S. theaters and is available for streaming through Netflix. It is 132 minutes long and is Rated R for some disturbing violence, brief language and nudity.
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