Impressive Sense of Time and Place
Racism, class, friendship, brotherhood, and man’s relentless struggle against the land come together poetically in filmmaker Dee Rees’ Mudbound, the spectacular follow-up to her 2011 debut feature, Pariah. Any thoughts of a lucky first strike with Pariah can be put to bed as Mudbound is unarguably the better of the two and one of this year’s best films.
Rees’ story, which she adapts -- accompanied by co-writer Virgil Williams -- from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 best-selling novel of the same name, is set in the early ‘40s deep south and follows the trials and tribulations of two Mississippi families -- one black, the other white. Mudbound plays out like a western of sorts, with Rees’ narrative swapping back and forth between the McAllen family, headed by hard-working but troubled landowner Henry (Jason Clarke), and the sharecropping Jackson family, whose Hap (Rob Morgan) aspires to one day own his own land. Along the way, we are offered an immersive and inspirational look into both families as they are pitted against everything the dirt, rain, mud, weather, and each other can throw at them. The harsh landscape itself is as formidable a character as any.
The film opens with Henry and his younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) digging a grave in which to bury their father, Pappy (Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks), an angry ol’ cuss of a racist still struggling with the aftermath of the Civil War.
Rees then flashes back several years to 1941 as Henry has moved with his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan) and two young girls to some God-forsaken farmland in rural Mississippi before eventually hiring the Jacksons to work the land and hand up the profits. Hap and wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) realize the hardships of a sharecropping family but make the most of it, getting themselves through with love, sacrifice, and faith. Meanwhile, Laura slowly forges a working relationship with Florence as the latter is hired to help Laura with cooking, cleaning, and helping with the children.
It’s not long before the War in Europe comes calling and each of the two families are touched when the Jackson’s send their eldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) to become a tank commander in Gen. Patton’s segregated Black Panthers squadron, while Jaime joins the Air Force as a fighter pilot. Upon their return to Mississippi following the end of the war, the two find a friendship forged on shared wartime traumas and the horrors of combat. But naturally, that friendship must be kept mostly secret as Ronsel finds himself, again, a second-class citizen upon his return.
Williams’ script calls for a creative visual technique that Rees, along with cinematographer Rachel Morrison deploy with perfection. Their story is layered with the specific points-of-view of the main characters told via voice-overs that drop us immediately into the mindset of each character. When we are in Henry’s point-of-view, the visual landscapes are high and wide, pitting him small against the land. We watch Ronsel, hot and sweaty under the palm of racial oppression, while it’s almost always cold, wet, or raining when we are inside Jaime’s story. Mudbound is about characters, human and otherwise. Rees and company brilliantly blend man and nature in a way that sinks us into a specific time and place. If it is not the scourge of racism that holds both families down, then it’s the brutality of mother nature that always reminds them of their place in the world.
Rees manages to get great performances from an ensemble cast that won acclaim on the festival circuit. Even Mary J. Blige holds her own in the fray as her character’s bond with Hap forms the film’s strongest and most memorable moments. The Jacksons remind us that in a world overwhelmingly stacked against us, we can emerge with grace, dignity, and overwhelming perseverance.
Mudbound releases on Netflix on November 17, 2017. With broad cinematic landscapes and rich literary themes, it is most certainly something best consumed in a widescreen theatrical format. But if streaming opens it to a larger audience, then all the better. We need more cinema like this.
(Released by Netflix and rated “R” for some disturbing violence, brief language and nudity.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.