Overview: Two families with sons returning from war navigate hard times on a 1940s Mississippi farm. Elevated Films; 2017; Rated R; 134 minutes.
More Alike Than Different: Mudbound follows two families who have a lot in common. Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) wants to find prosperity through owning farmland, so he moves his family from Memphis down to the Mississippi Delta. He brings his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), their children and his father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) along, while his younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is off flying bombers over Europe in World War II. Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) also dreams of one day owning his own land. He has family history on the land in Mississippi, where he works and lives with his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their children. Their son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) is across the pond as well, serving in a tank division. The chief difference is that the McAllans are white and the Jackson are black.
It’s the south during Jim Crow, so of course the families cannot be equal. But legally-sanctioned discrimination isn’t what director Dee Rees is interested in, but rather how one thing leads to another. Like Ava Duvernay’s 2016 documentary 13th, Mudbound illustrates that actions matter, privilege has consequences, and collective shrugging can lead to permanence.
What Good is a Deed?: Nobody would look at the McAllans and dare say they’re not hardworking. In fact, they’re credibly struggling as so many do. The American Dream has eluded their grip. Even with the Jacksons working the land for them, the fields haven’t yielded like Henry thought they would. It rains—boy does it ever rain. (Rees and cinematographer Rachel Morrison shoot in widescreen, letting the fields and the dark, clouded skies stretch on and on.) When Hap hurts himself and can’t work for over a month, it’s a costly blow. But you don’t have to strain too hard to figure out which family’s take-home will be more adversely affected. Ownership matters.
Hap knows this, and it’s why he wonders when his hard work will lead to the same type of agency he sees in Henry and the McAllans. The McAllans have just moved to this land, barged in and taken over, while Hap’s parents and grandparents and great grandparents not only worked here, but cried, bled, and died here. “All they did was undone,” he says. Hap gets out of bed prematurely to try out the bad leg, and the result is a physical distillation of what Hap has to overcome—working twice as hard to get half as far as Henry McAllan.
What makes Mudbound fascinating is how deep and wide it goes in meaningfully covering these serious grounds while also maintaining a fully human view of the world and the people who inhabit it. Rees co-wrote the script with Virgil Williams. Adapted from the book by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound is certainly novelistic, a true ensemble that uses voiceover consistently to bring us inside each of the half dozen main characters. At times, these asides can be overwrought, filled with capital-p-profound quotes, but they do allow us inside these characters who so often only say what they need or can to each other, given their situation and dynamics.
In Our Blood: The only character who is a bit too broad is Pappy—though, of course, retched old racists like him existed and, sadly, still do. Even still, Banks is a gifted actor and Rees imbues the character with just enough detached skepticism to keep him from completely careening into mustache-twirling territory. Pappy represents the worst of overt racism, but he’s also damning example of hyper masculinity, something Rees deftly handles with multiple instances of women helping out other women, often across racial lines. The McAllan brothers may have fallen a bit farther from the tree than Pappy had hoped, but he makes sure they’re always under the shade.
When Jaime and Ronsell return from Europe, they have an immediate bond, further strengthening the comparison these two families must deep down feel for each other. The two sons are both struggling with being back home, but there’s only so much they can have in common. An encounter at the local store with Pappy has Ronsel yearn for Europe, where he wasn’t forced to use the back door. Jaime also finds a world that he doesn’t belong in, though for different, less demeaning reasons. He doesn’t hide his admiration for Ronsel and their friendship, but this isn’t a movie that clears the way for the redeeming, righteous white man. Hap remains skeptical of his son’s new friend, and Ronsel himself tells Jamie that he “might be one of the good ones.” One of those words is doing a lot of the work.
The movie builds to a particularly terrifying moment. That doesn’t make it any less inevitable. “Violence is part and parcel of country living,” observes Laura McAllan. She’s referring to “country” in the colloquial sense, but we might well take it as a proper noun.
Overall: A patient, powerful depiction of common bonds and miles-wide differences between American families, Mudbound goes deep into its characters and wide on the repercussions of their actions.