As a director, Dee Rees refuses to take her foot off of the pedal when it comes to Mudbound– an adaption of a Hillary Jordan novel- stirring your emotions. The performances in this film are raw and believable enough for its message to resonate without needing to talk down to the audience. As an exploration of racial tensions in the 1940’s South, it feels relevant as well as realistic.
That’s not an easy tightrope to walk, but the filmmakers here pulled it off. This film’s cinematography and color scheme is certainly everything the title advertises, and it has a tone that feels serious but not pretentious. It’s directed like one of the iconic book adaptions produced in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and that’s not even getting into the humanity of the story.
Two families, the black sharecropper Jacksons and the white McAllans, have a chance meeting when Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) moves his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and heir family to a Mississippi farm. Laura hires Hap Jackson’s (Rob Morgan) wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) to help at their house after Florence nurses Laura’s sick children, and the two form a friendship- to the chagrin of Henry’s racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks).
Both the McAllans and Jacksons have sons enlisted in World War II, Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), and things get complicated when they both return home to their family farms at the end of their tour.
What I liked about this film was how most of the characters didn’t feel holier-than-thou or stereotypically evil. With the obvious exception of Pappy, who is an out-and-out antagonist, the Jacksons and McAllans are presented as decent, ordinary people who deserve better lives.
The connections they forge are presented as a spark of hope within an ugly social climate- a “what could be” scenario if they realized how absurd their biases were, and that they had more in common than they initially realized. It’s what makes the eventual slow-burn conclusion all the more heartbreaking.
For example, it doesn’t take long for Ronsel and Jamie to forge a bond based on their experiences overseas. Ronsel is understandably bitter over his continued racist treatment upon returning home, and he holds strong to memories of the various European women he met, while Jamie is deeply plagued with PTSD after some traumatic moments in combat. The two unsurprisingly go to great lengths to hide their friendship, navigating the prejudices of their day, and they both wrestle with demons that affect their family lives- Ronsel’s in the form of a girl he knew back in Germany, and Jamie’s developing chemistry with Laura.
I feel a bit odd recommending Mudbound because it’s a film that made me feel uncomfortable at points, but I was also touched by certain scenes, and the way in which the interactions unfold is easy to buy into. Stories that strive to push forth a message of tolerance don’t need to- and shouldn’t- come off like an afterschool special, and for the most part, this film avoids that trap.
Rees has a knack for making you feel everything her characters do- it’s easy to get caught up in their moments of joy, and you’ll find yourself getting angry when they suffer indignities. The story unfolds like a classic melodrama in a style you rarely see anymore and doesn’t fall into clichés as it progresses. The commentary regarding the Jim Crow laws of the South and class relationships come off as everyday moments or snapshots, without ever feeling preachy or as if it needed to be exaggerated.
Mudbound is a movie that makes an intense, driven argument for love and compassion in the face of cynicism. I suppose my one major criticism is how out-of-nowhere the climax comes off- as if the movie is rushing to get in one last intense moment of drama. But outside of that, the simple moments of humanity between these two families are a ray of hope among the ugly politics of their time. And the strength of the acting really elevates it into something worth watching, especially on the part of Mulligan and Mary J. Blige. Highly recommended.