A fiercely intimate epic about poverty, racism, violence and a divided America, Mudbound scorchingly reflects the Trump era without being a part of it. The film reps a new career high for director Dee Rees, whose remarkable 2011 debut feature Pariah is a semi-autobiographical deep dive into a black girl’s struggles with coming out. Since 2015’s Bessie, was made for HBO and not released in theaters, this period drama is officially only Rees’ second feature. Such are the tribulations of being young, gifted, black, female and gay in a Hollywood ruled by a white male hierarchy. I don’t know if the movie will help change things. But it sure as hell should.
Set in hard-times Mississippi just before, during and after World War II and based on a 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound focuses on two poor families: one white farmers (the McAllans); the other black sharecroppers (the Jacksons) who work the former’s land. Rees and cowriter Virgil Thomas co-opt the novel’s device of having six characters – three from each family – narrate their stories. Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) are left with more work when their son, Ronsel (Straight Outta Compton‘s Jason Mitchell), ships off to war as part of all-black Tank Battalion.
Henry McAllan (the excellent Jason Clarke) and his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), also suffer a setback when his brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), becomes a war pilot. Mulligan beautifully captures Laura’s sense of having no place in a world where her brother-in-law shows her more care and attention than her husband. With Jamie gone, Laura must cope with her volatile husband, who seethes with resentment against black workers who “threaten” his livelihood. And then there’s Henry’s Klan-member daddy (Better Call Saul‘s Jonathan Banks), whose bigotry is so rampant you can see it from space. Of course, violence erupts.
Still, Mudbound finds its center and its heart in the tale of Ronsel and Jamie, who both return from home from battle as victims of PTSD, though no one had a word for it in the 1940s. The two form a bond that their respective circles can’t condone, much less understand. Hedlund cuts to the core of Jamie’s trauma, and Mitchell gives the film’s most shattering performance as a soldier who fell in love with a German woman and found equality in the army – something that is totally denied to him back home.
How Rees interlocks the threads of the story and the interior voices that give it life represents a stunning achievement. And she gets indelible, in-depth performances from the actors. A special word here about Blige, the thundering soul singer and R&B artist who imbues Florence with such grit and radiant grace that she should be on everyone’s Oscar list for Best Supporting Actress. The director and her cinematographer Rachel Morrison do wonders with the elements that batter the people of every race and social class in the Delta. But it’s the storm raging inside these characters that rivets our attention and makes Mudbound a film that grabs you and won’t let go.