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RATING: ★★★★ (out of four stars)
In writer/director Dee Ree’s charred epic Mudbound, no matter who you are, you can’t escape your story. But you sure as daylight can make it better for you and those you share it with.
An adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name, Rees’ film see grace and anger find peace with one another in one of the wisest, weighty period pieces in ages.
Set against the backdrop of Mississippi at the close of World War II, Mudbound splices up the perspectives of various vantages of this shameful, painful time in history with two inter-locking families – the McAllans, white Southern farmers who have hit a crossroads, and the Jacksons, black tenant farmers who are trying to forge their way in a society that no longer enslaves them with chains, but with the perils of the Jim Crow South.
Of the McAllans, Laura (a weary, pensive Carey Mulligan) bobs and weaves through disappointment and contentment in her role of passive housewife after her less-than-affectionate husband Henry (a sturdy Jason Clarke) gets bamboozled into a little patch of poison in a muddy farm in Mississippi. In tow for this tricky transition are their kids, Henry’s grumpy bigot father Pappy (Jonathan Banks, effectively despicable) and, eventually, Henry’s handsome, hard-drinking brother Jamie (a never-better Garrett Hedlund), who’s just returned from the war.
Across the way lie the Jacksons. Hap (a terrific Rob Morgan) and Florence (a piercingly subtle Mary J. Blige) man their station with pride. They don’t have much, and are subject to whatever the McAllans ask since they own the farm, but it’s enough to still have pleasant meals around the table and a nice sit under the stars. Their son, Ronsel (another firecracker from Jason Mitchell), has also just returned from the service, leaving a love behind in Europe to return to Mississippi to help his family around the farm.
Just about all involved get time from Rees to add to the film’s sprawling narration – just about every scene is backed by some sort of accompanying explanation as to what it all means deep down. Rather than droning on like the worst sets of narration sometimes can, Rees allows the myriad of differing voices to enrich what you feel instead of telling you just how exactly to do so. Her film requires some patience to really affirm the structure, but she’s not going to spoil the reward by getting too ahead of the purposeful pacing. Once this film gets moving, there’s no slowing it down. It’s a train without breaks.
The story of the McAllans and the Jacksons grows together through workmanlike relationships and personal bridges. Florence tends to the McAllans’ children as they get a case of whooping cough and earns the immediate appreciation of Larua, and war veterans Jamie and Ronsel strike a fast friendship with their shared experiences overseas. The latter’s bond carries with it a weight of danger, with society still as backward as a Z-starting alphabet as how different races can relate to one another.
For the times where they are, there is great relevance in communal understanding. Rees’ film strikes an exact, fierce balance as how she deals with the pangs of a segregated society. When Pappy tosses out a racist crack at Florence as she tends to his ailing grandchildren, she turns the other cheek. When Ronsel get confronted at the local goods store for walking out the main entrance, he stands his ground, and eventually relents to leaving through the segregated exit. These moments show great courage and patience with the times, with the Jacksons both aware of the hurdles they have to cross and the vigor to cross them however best they can, and when the time is right.
But, through Jamie, we see that this film has no interest in its white characters taking a passive role in repenting for the sins of the age. Hedlund understands the gravity of his role as well as any in the stacked ensemble.
As charming as the actor can make any of his roles, he’s not afraid to grab hold of the waves that toss about inside his character – ones of understanding the true lunacy of society’s treatment of minorities, ones that drag him back to images of that horrid war he’s survived (and in turn, to the bottle for respite), ones that draw him nearer to his brother’s malcontent wife (who, of course, feels the same way). He’s fractured, but trying, and Hedlund transfigures himself into every scar and linger of hope.
His scenes with Mitchell are delicate and healing. The pair kick around the can and empathize with each other’s heavy loads like old friends. It’s downright catharsis to watch them just be vulnerable with each other, not only eschewing the moronic racial divide, but the gender divide in guys sharing their feelings.
Mitchell, who proves time after time on screen his impeccable presence and range, carries a lot of the burdens Jamie does, though, obviously, through a different lens. He longs to get out of the mud and to move on with his life in a world that treats him fairly, just as badly as Jamie wishes to improve the one he’s in. Though, there are always stumbling blocks and unstoppable circumstances in this mud pit.
This film isn’t going to wash away the stains of history that hang over the piece like a foreboding storm cloud. Just like in life, the rain eventually falls. Though, Rees challenges that it’s not just on one side to clean it up. It’s not just on the oppressed to find their freedom.
Mudbound is about the shared anger we should all have in wake of injustices, and the shared humanity that’s already a given when dealing with whatever life throws our way. Rees’ work barrows in on age-old problems with eyes looking forward and backward. Just as we hurt for what’s happened, we make an about face to what’s going on.
It’s all our worlds to fix, after all. We all till the same ground. We all share the same farm.
Mudbound is available to screen on Netflix now.