From indie filmmaker Dee Rees, most known for her acclaimed coming-of-age drama in 2011’s “Pariah,” comes the stirring period piece of American values and racial tension in “Mudbound.” Cropping up on the streaming service that’s been overtaking the small screen with ambitious bouts of critically-acclaimed original content for the past few years, Netflix’s latest venture into post-World War II America finds swelling emotion packed into a tale of war, friendship and sacrifice. With Rees’ compassionate filmmaking shining through the depths of tragedy, “Mudbound” presented a purely American epic that could be one of the year’s best films.
At the onset of the second world war, Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) lives with her husband Henry (Jason Clarke) in the Mississippi Delta, a place she finds unsettling and foreign. After suddenly moving onto the land of black sharecropper Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his family, the McAllans grapple with life stuck in the mud. As the Jacksons and the McAllans learn to share a land that continually spells trouble for the two families, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) return from the war to battle their own troubles at home. Facing the trials of PTSD and racial prejudice in a struggle that unites them in an unlikely bond, Jamie and Ronsel find their worlds radically shaken from what they knew in the clutches of war.
While other Netflix originals like “Alias Grace” and Marvel’s latest superhero series in “The Punisher” might have found their way at the top of my list for the closing weeks of November, another project to catch my eye was the period drama “Mudbound.” Promising a sensational cast, including the likes of Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, and Mary J. Blige, set against an engrossing tale of the sins of America’s past, “Mudbound” looked to be an unlikely feature set to make waves come award season. Eager to dive into the bold new drama from up-and-comer Dee Rees, I was met with a stark yet undeniably beautiful tragedy that infused human characters with the resonate themes of post-war America.
The stark beauty of “Mudbound” kicked off almost immediately with the film’s first scene, which saw brothers Henry and Jamie McAllan digging a grave for their father. As the sky bled heavy rain from grim clouds looming over the mud-drenched farmland, the solemn faces of the McAllan brothers spoke volumes to the epic that was about to unfold. As their individual voices eventually wrung out over the scene to string you down the rabbit hole that would lead up to this point, the looming presence of danger lurked in both the dark clouds above them and the thick dirt caked in their boots.
Captivating cinematography wasn’t the only draw that drove me deeper and deeper into “Mudbound” however. As a clear tension brewed between the McAllan brothers, psychologically sparing over the events prior to their father’s death, the film began to delve into the lingering thoughts of its main characters. From Carey Mulligan’s tepid views of farm life as Henry’s reluctant wife to Rob Morgan’s hesitation towards his new neighbors as sharecropper Hap Jackson, the film utilized a unique method of storytelling that blended expositional narration with intertwining perspectives. Through its story, which spun a haunting tale of rural life in the Jim Crow South, each character painted their own image of America and its values with every word that escaped their mouths.
As each of their different perspectives merged into a singular epic that explored the struggles and indecencies of 1940s Mississippi, the cast of the film lent some of their best performances to portray compelling caricatures of Southern society. While some performances, like Jason Clarke’s man-of-the-house Henry McAllan and Jonathan Banks as his malicious father, might have fallen a bit far into becoming simple cliches of Southern personas, the leading roles of Mulligan, Morgan and Blige were especially exceptional at infusing their own spirit into their roles. As Blige and Morgan gave profound insight into the struggles of African-American tenant farmers, Mulligan explored the innocence and impulsions of a housewife who falls out of love with her husband.
With the supporting characters fueling the first half of the film with their dissection of the bitter Southern landscape, the chemistry between the film’s leading men in Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell cemented the film’s third act as an emotional parable of war and indifference. With the two men embarking into the jaws of war as their families toil in flooding farms, “Mudbound” pointed the camera towards their individual trials overseas. Losing brothers to gunfire and slowly breaking down their tough facades, they return home to find their paths intertwined. With Hedlund’s naive Jamie unspooling into a man who drinks away the horrors of his past, and Mitchell’s hardened Ronsel returning to a world of racial discrimination at the doorstep of his own home, the crossed path of the two men gave the final act of the film a stirring resonance to the horrors found in our past, and their effect on today’s ever-swaying political climate.
Overall, while this might be my first leap into director Dee Rees’ work on the screen, “Mudbound” provided plenty of promise for the filmmaker’s gradual rise as one of the most prominent directors in Hollywood. Giving this year a new American classic with her dissection of post-war South and the trials of human nature, Dee Rees painted a raw, unsettling portrait of rural life that harbored an illuminating bond beyond the color of one’s skin.