Three weeks after seeing it, just mentioning the title of Mudbound conjures within my mind the stark imagery used to depict such an unforgiving environment. So often period pieces are a bit glossier than reality would have it, but Dee Rees’s sprawling southern epic takes no pains to spruce things up. The central characters are indeed mudbound in many interpretations of the phrase, the most immediately striking of which is the literal definition.
Nobody walks – they trudge. Nobody has fancy shoes – they have boots. And even though a white landowner in the post-WWII South would be at the peak of privilege, even their situation still mostly sucks by modern standards. Filth inundates every nook and cranny of every surface. So much so that even the most thorough cleaning is sure to leave behind plenty of grime.
This, of course, is indicative of the metaphor being tossed about in Mudbound, a film which aims to shed light on the very true notion that the end of slavery didn’t mean overnight success for those who were freed — that freedom on paper looks a lot different than freedom in practice. When your life is constructed on a foundation of mud, no amount of shine can alter this fact, and if one doesn’t reckon with such a thing, how can one manifest any sense of pride?
Before Adaptation loudly proclaimed that the use of voiceover was a lazy tool for exposition dumps (this wasn’t at all the intention of Jonze’s masterpiece, which itself uses voiceover to brilliant ends) it was only the clunkiest of narration which threw up a red flag. Naturally, I was cautious when it became clear that Mudbound was going to be voiceover-heavy. However, the use of it here is not just natural, but essential. As an adaptation of a book, it becomes important to speak to the internal monologues of each character, or a story risks losing the thematic density which pushes it forward. Since the way that this film is structured doesn’t allow much room for an audience surrogate to be established, we must trust other cinematic elements to take us there. Thus, we get voiceovers from each of our main characters which, in conjunction with a stable of exceptional performances, gives us a clear and functional window into their motivations.
Rees seems uninterested in following the unspoken rules of financially sound, creatively satisfying filmmaking. It’s a period piece. It takes place on multiple continents. It relies heavily on voiceover. But rules are indeed made to be broken, and Mudbound is of such high quality on all levels of production that whatever finagling may have occurred to grant Rees cash and creative control are worth it. There are no half-measures here, and it all works.
There are two families at the center of the tale, the McAllans and the Jacksons. After being screwed by a shady landlord, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) has moved his family onto a farm that he feels is a bit below his station. Without a proper house, his intention is to make a living off the land and build up from there. His wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) is a woman of duty. She’s not head over heels for Henry, but this is of little concern. Their relationship, in terms of sensibility, works. By all rights of paper and pen, the farm and the land belongs to the McAllans, but by rights of blood, sweat, and tears, the Jacksons are forever bonded with it. They live in a shack on the land and they pay their rent to the McAllans with work. When Florence and Hap Jackson (Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan) send their eldest son Ronsel off to fight in WWII, there’s a bittersweet sense of pride in knowing that the horrors of war may actually be his only route out of a livable, but hardly desirable life.
While overseas, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) is treated with a level of dignity unheard of in the States. It’s not ideal, but it’s enough to make his eventual return even more difficult. When he returns he strikes up a guarded but genuine friendship with Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), Henry’s little brother, also fresh back from the war. This friendship, of course, is not well regarded amongst the white locals, least of all Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks), and brews caution among the rest of the Jackson clan.
Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan run away with the film. They bring just the right amounts of love to Florence and Hap, but without dipping into melodrama. Their struggle is very real, and it’s painful to watch it be disregarded with ignorance by the white landowners. Few of the McAllans act with malevolence toward the Jacksons, but it’s this indifference to their plight which stings the most. And when Pappy and his KKK buddies purposefully seek to do harm, it’s the communal silence amongst the privileged class that resonates most.
Jason Mitchell, once again, proves himself to be one of the most chameleonic and engaging actors working today, while Jason Clarke continues climbing his way from a face to a name. Next year’s Chappaquiddick will likely finish the job.
I fear that Mudbound will be dismissed as “been there done that” when really the opposite is the case. Dee Rees is only going to grow from here, and it’s amazing what she accomplished with this film. EVEN GARRETT HEDLUND IS EXCELLENT IN IT.
But jokes aside, don’t let this film be dismissed. It’s as thoroughly entertaining as it is thematically prescient, and it’s head and shoulders above any film you could reasonably seek to compare it to.
And for real, put Mary J. Blige in more movies. She’s brilliant in Mudbound. BRILLIANT. Like, could easily get a Best Supporting Actress Oscar good.
Mudbound opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.