Review: ‘Mudbound’ (2017) Is An Intimate Epic

The Jackson family has worked the land they’re on for a long time now. They’re tenant farmers now, but their ancestors worked the exact same land as slaves. Hap, the family patriarch, wants to own the land he works, but he knows that a deed means nothing in the face of the power and fury of white Mississippians who would never, ever let a black man rise so far. All they can do is keep their heads down, work hard, and pray that eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) survives World War II.

The McAllan family are well-educated Tennesseans, with the freedom to move about the country, a freedom they make use of when Henry (Jason Clarke), the family patriarch, impulsively buys a Mississippi farm and moves his whole family down there to work it. He doesn’t have much experience, and he lacks the business sense to even make sure his family has a place to sleep when they arrive, but at least he has the Jacksons to make sure the land gets worked right. Now they have to find a way to thrive in rural life, and pray that younger brother Jamie survives World War II.

Mudbound is, at its heart, the story of these two families and the relationships that form – and shatter – between them. Adapted from a novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound is a wonderfully observed look at the complexities of human emotion. This plays out both in small, internal conflicts and larger societal strife, looking at the ways we relate to one another as families, as lovers, as employees, and as the Other. There are moments of grotesque bigotry and violence, but, as with many great tragedies, they never feel unearned; rather than a shock, they are the result of a series of totally understandable decisions, small moments that have a cumulative power that belies their initial intimacy.

In one early scene, where Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige) watches her son Ronsel go to war, the script – and Blige, excellent in the role – gets at a contradiction of parenthood: She loves all her children equally, she doesn’t have a favorite… but Ronsel will be, for the next few years, first and foremost in her thoughts and prayers. She feels some guilt about this, but also knows herself well enough to understand that she will simply have to live with it. Florence is a woman hemmed in by circumstance and society, but her largely internal conflicts dominate the film’s most moral landscape.

On the other hand, Henry (Jason Clarke) in many ways is an exemplar of the film’s use of macro relationships to get across larger points about society. Henry certainly isn’t a good person, but he doesn’t seem to harbor the same passionate hatred for black people that his father (Jonathan Banks) does. He doesn’t seem to harbor much passion for anything, really; he just wants to make money off his farm and raise a family. But his ignorance doesn’t shield him from participating in monstrous injustice, as he’s more than happy to take advantage of ‘the way things are’ to force the Jackson’s to give up some of their wages to accept help they don’t want just so he can make a little extra money. Perhaps the most potent example of this comes from the sequences that bookend the film, which illustrate the degree to which Henry neither understands nor cares about the world around him. He is ‘All Lives Matter’ personified, uncomfortable with seeing himself as an outright bigot but ecstatic to use his power and privilege to bend everyone around him to his will, even as he vehemently denies doing so. As they say at the beginning of the film, he feels an absolute confidence that he will get his way, in spite of reality.

Part of what I find striking about Mudbound is how rarely it takes the easy way out. Characters are messy in a way I rarely see in film, which tend to favor smaller, self-contained stories. To take one example: Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), wife of Henry, has a fairly simple arc set up at the beginning of the film, one in which she realizes that she isn’t in love with her husband, but with his brother, and either decides to leave her husband or wallows with a man she doesn’t truly love. But, in entangling her story with that of the Jackson family, her narrative goes askew, the seemingly binary choice laid out at the beginning of the film exploding into a series of smaller moments that build a more complex character.

It is also worth noting: Mudbound is a gorgeous film. Mudbound‘s budget, given that it’s a period piece that includes scenes set during World War II, is a miniscule $10 million, and cinematographer Rachel Morrison makes the most of it. Its use of light, of farmers working with the rising and setting of the sun, is particularly striking. At times, it reminded me of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, but Mudbound – as befitting the name – is a less… pastoral film, the Morrison manages to capture the grit and grime of farm life well. Still, the things that keep coming back to me are her images of the farm, often beautiful, but also isolated and unchanging as the world moves forward.

To be frank, I think it’s a crime that Netflix released and buried Mudbound the way it did. This is an old-fashioned social epic, the kind of movie you always hear adults begging to see more of on the big screen. Dee Rees has crafted something that manages to be both emotionally devastating and surprisingly uplifting at times, an empathetic tragedy with clear eyes about America’s racial legacy and the slow social changes motivated in part by World War II. Her film is an expansive examination of the relationships we forge – romantic, platonic, familial, and fraternal – that bind us together, and the people who through bigotry,  ignorance, or greed try to tear those relationships apart. This is one of Netflix’s best films, and one that I think anyone looking for a strong, emotionally complex film should seek out.

Mudbound is available now on Netflix. Written by Dee Rees and Virgil Williams adapting a novel by Hillary Jordan and directed by Dee Rees, Mudbound stars Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, and Garrett Hedlund.

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