Cultivating a multitude of perspectives in post World War II Mississippi, director Dee Rees’ Mudbound is a polished, profound work that unfurls an epic without becoming redundant or tired. The White McAllen family and the African American Jackson family both work tirelessly in the farm fields to survive. It’s a hard life without proper sanitation or much help from the outside world. This story eloquently deals with overstepping boundaries in an era where the smallest infraction against white male patriarchy could result in dire consequences or death. The quiet rebellion of thoughts and actions in Mudbound is a powerful treatise on the conditions many endured.
Carey Mulligan is the wife of Henry McAllen, a woman who was late to marriage and overly grateful for his attention. Her story is absorbing but not truly fulfilling. Like many characters here, she is a fraction of the whole and complicated enough that an entire movie could have centered in on her struggle. Mulligan turns in yet another performance that is subtle and dedicated. Her selfless toiling is worn with a weary smile or near silent anguish as she experiences defeat after defeat. Her husband Henry (Jason Clarke) is the underperforming, simple brother of the suave Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) who goes on to be an accomplished pilot in the war. The back and forth between the brothers concerning achievement is dwelled upon but doesn’t resonate nearly as well as the acute racism laced into the daily lives of these families.
The father of the McAllen boys (Jonathan Banks of AMC’s Breaking Bad) is a miserable curmudgeon who builds himself up by putting others down. His prejudices are blunt and savage. Banks sharply hammers home the nearly insurmountable obstacles that African Americans faced. The humble Jackson family works the land for the McAllen clan. Their son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) goes on to be a tank operator in the war, gaining confidence in himself and the knowledge of how accepting Europeans are of different races. His father (Rob Morgan) yearns to build a church at home while his wife (singer Mary J.Blige) tends to the McAllen home and children. Morgan’s performance has a delicate yet wizened edge to it while Blige turns in a stoic turn as a woman who wears many hats and tries to do best by everyone. Ronsel and Jamie forge a brothership from their war experiences that has to stay as secret as adultery. Caring for the opposite race is made clearly dangerous and the fact that good intentions count for absolutely nothing is reiterated with a chilling mundaneness that reflects how commonly race mixing of any kind was met with brutal punishment.
There is a good deal of happenstance cooperation in Mudbound. The women of the two households bolster each other and have a mutually respectful albeit loveless friendship. The families depend on each other for their livelihoods. There is so much plot in this film that some characters unfortunately don’t feel fleshed out enough. Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, the movie is cluttered but does showcase an in-depth and elevating role for Jason Mitchell as Ronsel. We follow him the closest and keep his feelings dearest. Director Rees is deft at building up underdogs (as she did with her previous effort Pariah).
There is enough heartbreak and dread in Mudbound that it doesn’t quite buoy the audience up out of despair by the end. The enduring takeaway is that the drama provides small triumphs that ease the pain and palpably projects the ever so slowly tide of change creeping into America, setting the stage for far better lives for subjugated people.