Reviewed by Kristy Puchko
Writer-director Dee Rees earned buzz out the gate in 2011, with the compelling coming-of-age drama Pariah. She followed this up with the bawdy and bold Bessie, a made-for-TV biopic that starred Queen Latifah as legendary blues siren Bessie Smith. Now, after months of touring film festivals, winning praise, and sparking Oscar speculation, Rees’ latest, Mudbound, is coming to select theaters and Netflix to offer a bittersweet period piece that’s ripe with political undertones.
Based on the Hillary Jordan novel of the same name, Mudbound centers on two families struggling in the Jim Crow South. There’s the McAllans, a white family who has recently purchased 200-acres of muck they call a farm. And there’s the Jacksons, a Black family of sharecroppers who’ve worked this property for far longer than its owner has had any ambition to. As soon as he arrives, hardheaded Henry (Jason Clarke) throws his weight around, intruding on the Jacksons’ home unannounced and demanding patriarch Hap (Rob Morgan) leave the dinner table to unload the moving truck. So begins the tension between neighbors staring out from other side of the racial divide. Forced to use only the back doors of public establishments and regularly referred to by horrid slurs, the Jacksons are all too aware they are not seen as equals and will be abused for any transgression made against white supremacy. And the threat of this hangs heavy over every frame of the film.
But not every McAllan is as brusque or bigoted as Henry or his scowling father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks). Unlikely friendships emerge once common ground is uncovered. The mothers of these families, Florence (Mary J. Blige) and Laura (Carey Mulligan), bond over childcare. And as World War II draws to a ragged close, Henry’s outgoing brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Hap’s accomplished son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) return from the military, and connect over swigs of a flask, stories of battle, and troubles adjusting to civilian life. All the while, Mudbound lets us into not just their lives, but also their innermost thoughts. Voiceover changes hands from Jamie to Laura, Florence to Ronsel. It’s a move that recalls John Steinbeck’s Grape of Wrath. And with each voiceover, the audience is given texture to a tapestry of impending tragedy.
Ambitiously, Mudbound an ensemble with six main characters that spans across years, and deals with racism, sexism, entitlement, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In this way, Mudbound feels like a mini-series, but a fleet-footed one. In just 2 hours and 14 minutes, Rees’ cast constructs vibrant characters and nuanced portrayals that make sure every big moment hits its mark. From Blige’s steely-eyed matriarch to Mulligan’s mournful wife, Hedlund’s drunken outcast to Mitchell’s restless veteran, they give performances that are subtle but soul scratching. The adapted screenplay by Dee Rees and Virgil Williams offers poetry in its narration, but also succinct encapsulations of character, that ground the Jacksons and the McAllans as quickly as the inescapable mud does their steps. It is kind of perfect then, that its on Netflix, as watching Mudbound is not unlike the experience of binge-watching one their riveting drama series, dense with metaphor, stories, and characters that clutch at your heart, then rattle your core.
Though this is a story with much ugliness in it, Mudbound is ultimately hopeful. Rees expresses this throughout, favoring a color scheme that’s warm and sumptuous, even in fields rich only in mud and misery. And through her tension-sparked tale begins in an open grave, she weaves a radiant tenderness and yearning.
As Florence muses to herself, “Love is a kind of survival.” As Henry and Pappy sew seeds of hatred, and grow fruits of wrath and violence that hurt the women and people of color less powerful than they, it’s easy to draw comparisons to the world around us, and see the injustices still all too present in America. But even in the face of the Ku Klux Klan, Mudbound‘s heroes will not fall to fear and hatred. Instead, they will push toward love. Admittedly, Rees’ earnestness overpowers in the film’s final act, hastily trimming some threads that want for finesse. Still, with an impeccable ensemble, taut tension, striking cinematography and a resplendent emotional intelligence, this drama one not to be missed.
Mudbound is now in select theaters and on Netflix.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). She’s a co-host for the Sirius XM show It’s Erik Nagel, and has taught a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com