Sprawling, tragic and well-crafted, Mudbound is one of the best movies of the year.
Based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel, the film tells the stories of two families working on the same farm: the white McAllans, who own the land, and the black Jacksons, who work as tenants on it. Though neither would be considered wealthy, the gulf between them is vast.
The film doesn’t always mesh gracefully, with narration from no less than six characters, sometimes overlapping. But each character is fully realized, with lived-in performances to match.
Jason Clarke and Garrett Hedlund play brothers Henry and Jamie, respectively. Henry has married Laura (Carey Mulligan), who’s used to the comforts of city life, and moved their family to rural Mississippi. Jamie has gone on to be a fighter pilot, shooting down Nazi planes. Jonathan Banks plays the brothers’ hideously racist father.
Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige play Hap and Florence, the couple renting fields on the McAllan’s farm. They’ve got three kids who they desperately want to move beyond their meager existence. Their oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) is a tank commander in Germany.
Both families encounter the harsh economic realities of eking out an existence on a farm with rudimentary equipment, where a long rain can wipe out an entire year’s living in a few days. But it’s clear the Johnsons have it much worse. When Hap breaks his leg, it throws the entire family’s financial stability into question.
Things get even more tense when Jamie and Ronsel return from war. Haunted by what they’ve seen and angry that life will never go back the way it was, they become close friends, sharing war stories and bottles of whiskey. But this being the 1940s, both families caution them against their camaraderie. Yet they ignore these warnings, because the only one who understands what they’ve been through is the other.
Director Dee Rees focuses a lot on texture in Mudbound: dirt caked under fingernails, rusted-out trucks, filthy clothes. But she gets even more out of the actors. All their emotions feel authentic, even and especially when they’re agonizing. Rees doesn’t shy away from grisly images of soldiers being shot in the head, a broken leg with the bone sticking out, or an absolutely brutal torture scene. But it’s all for effect, specific to those scenes. While the film has a feeling of tragedy throughout, it’s not overwhelming in the same way, say, 12 Years a Slave is.
Mudbound is absolutely vital, not just as historical fiction, but sadly as a testament to how little progress we’ve made as a society in 70 years. While it will be available on Netflix, it deserves to be seen on the big screen. This is a level up for Rees, and for many of the actors involved.