Mudbound (2017)

  • Time: 120 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Dee Rees
  • Cast: Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund


Two men return home from World War II to work on a farm in rural Mississippi, where they struggle to deal with racism and adjusting to life after war.


  • (RATING: ☆☆☆☆½ out of 5)

    GRADE: B+


    IN BRIEF: A powerful film about bigotry with an exemplary ensemble.

    SYNOPSIS: in 1940’s, two families, one white, one black, struggle to survive in the Deep South.

    RUNNING TIME: 2 hrs.

    JIM’S REVIEW: It is a small patch of earth that brings together two Southern families in rural 1940’s Mississippi in Dee Rees’ powerful saga, Mudbound. Based on Hillary Jordan’s epic novel, the film shows all the hardships and obstacles that follow these tenant farmers in the bigoted Deep South during the World War II era. Streaming on Netflix and opening in select theaters this weekend, this film is one of the better movies of the year. One hopes the film will gather more critical responses during award season, especially for its strong ensemble.

    We meet two dissimilar families: the McAllans, a white, semi-privileged clan who own the cherished land and the Jacksons, a black family who till the parched soil with hopes of buying and owning the property in the future. Their lives intersect as the story progresses. It does take a while for the set-up to begin, but it is well worth the wait. Laura, a well-to-do city girl with a sense of culture and pride marries Henry McAllan and is forced to settle on his family’s farm, with his bigoted father named Pappy, a stereotyped hater if there ever was one, and Henry’s handsome younger brother, Jamie,. (Yes another stereotype, and too obviously a plot device to create a melodramatic triangle.) Their neighbors are the proud and stoic Florence Jackson, her hard-working husband Hap, and their many children, including their eldest son, Ronsel. Both Jamie and Ronsel go off to war and come back emotionally damaged, unable to face the prejudice of townsfolk as these two become friends.

    The screenplay by Virgil Williams and the director covers much territory and creates characters that resonate in their humanity, or lack thereof. Their script has some flaws in its storytelling. The over indulgence of the voice-over narration becomes a bit tiresome, even though the words have a poetic lilt to them. This approach provides multiple perspectives from all of the characters, but it hinders their development at times. One wishes those words would have become part of the dialog and provide its glorious cast with more dramatic acting opportunities. The film also becomes too melodramatic in its subject, but it is handled with such emotional clarity and nuance that one can easily overlook those flourishes. Its complicated story and the scope of its material allows a subplot about an abused wife (though well played by Kerry Cahill) to intrude upon the central story. This does little to advance the narrative, except to provide a haunting image of blood-soaked land. That said, these are minor missteps that cannot diminish the film’s overall impact.

    In fact, there are many memorable images in this film due to Rachel Morrison’s photography (a a child pointing a brook handle at a white man pretending to shoot him dead, contrasting scenes of a woman washing herself clean of the dirt and shame, a harrowing sequence of a black soldier being told to use the rear door, etc.). Mako Kamitsuna’s taut editing seamlessly interweaves war time scenes with the farm life sequences and transitions both with masterful skill. Ms. Dee’s direction creates moments of undeniable beauty and unsettling tension. Her vision of the ongoing prejudice that permeated this town is palpable and makes the moviegoer sit up and take notice about the injustice and hatred (sadly still a part of America’s fabric today). Particularly disturbing is the film’s most graphic scene involving the Klan that is riveting and honestly depicts these heinous acts of violence.

    The cast is exceptional and work as a cohesive whole. Carey Mulligan as Laura brings an underlying sadness and strength to her part as the despairing Laura. Her female counterpart, an unrecognizable Mary J. Blige, is riveting as she helplessly watches her son make some questionable choices that she knows will have consequences. Jonathan Banks takes on the evil and loveless Pappy with such deep-seeded venom. Although the patriarch roles of both houses are somewhat underwritten, both Jason Clarke and Rob Morgan add the missing depth to their sketchy characters. Perhaps the most effective portrayals are given by Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell as the two friends. Mr. Hedlund gives his best performance to date as the alcoholic PTSD victim and Mr. Mitchell is a revelation, conveying all of the anger and confusion that many African-American soldiers faced returning from duty. His one speech comparing his acceptance of his blackness in Europe to his demeaning role as second-class citizen in America upon his returned is heartbreaking.

    In Mudbound, one character says, “I dreamed in brown.” That statement conveys the heartbreak and power that is this thought-provoking film. Do not miss it.

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  • Netflix well and truly enters this year’s Oscar race with a powerful film adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s critically acclaimed debut novel Mudbound. A searing snapshot of race relations spanning the period between America’s entry into WWII and the subsequent postwar era, the narratively dense epic focuses on the complex web of relationships that twine two families – one white, the other black – in tentative hope and terrible tragedy.

    “I dreamed in brown,” shares Laura (Carey Mulligan) at the start of the film. Like most of the characters in the story, Laura has become bound to the land, though not necessarily of her own accord. A 31-year-old virgin with a teaching certificate living with her parents in Memphis, she blossoms under the attention of family friend Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke); more than love, it is gratitude which motivates her acceptance of his marriage proposal. She is content, even happy at times, at her new role as wife to Henry and, soon thereafter, mother to their two children.

    Unbeknownst to Laura, Henry has bought a farm in Mississippi and decides to move his whole family there, including his noxiously racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks). When they arrive, however, it turns out that the seller has swindled Henry out of living in the main house and so the family has to move into the run-down home on the farm, where electricity and running water are not to be taken for granted. Living not too far from them are the Jacksons, headed up by patriarch Hap (Rob Morgan), a preacher and tenant farmer working the same land where his ancestors once toiled. He’s wary of the McAllans instinctive treatment of his family as round-the-clock help but mindful of the status quo – no use fighting when the whites always win – though he bristles when his wife Florence (an affecting and dignified Mary J. Blige) agrees to work as a housekeeper at Laura’s request. “You don’t belong to them,” Hap tells his wife, but the pragmatic Florence reasons that the extra money will help them with their dream of owning their own land.

    As these two families reflect upon their hopes and hardships, both are also affected by greater circumstances. War has been declared and both families have one of their own on the front lines. Their individual experiences in the war and how those experiences shape the surprising friendship that develops between them once they return home forms the heart and soul of the film. In contrast to the resolute Henry, his younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is dashing and carefree though war has dampened his easygoing ways to the point where he needs alcohol to dull the trauma. Neither he nor Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), the Jackson’s eldest son, have much patience for the bigotry that pervades their small town though they are inevitably powerless at the tragic consequences borne from their bond.

    Mudbound is replete with stunningly composed, poetic yet unsentimental images. There’s a hint of Dutch landscape paintings and more than a passing resemblance to the photography of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison crafts impressive compositions, but director Dee Rees maintains priority on characterisation. As the multiple voiceovers indicate, the main sextet are equalised – all are affected one way or another with the weight of history and how legacy can be both a blessing and a curse. Foreboding is ever present – the ground on which they hang their fortunes is a fickle master, doling out feast and famine in inequal measure; Laura notes how violence is part and parcel of country life; the whooping cough that assails one of Laura’s daughters; the miscarriage Laura has which brings her and Florence closer – and how that sense of dread crystallises in a deeply harrowing scene involving Ronsel, Jamie and the Ku Klux Klan.

    The cast are superlative but all credit is due to Rees, who explores how the currency of white privilege often bears the strangest fruit and how, even in relative peace and understanding, violence is always lurking in the shadows waiting to strike.

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