The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Mudbound begins with two men digging a grave, hacking through the mud in the middle of a torrential downpour. One declares that “we ain’t gonna make it.” “We have to,” insists the other. In the sodden, dirt-brown world of Dee Rees’ mid-century Southern tragedy, a stubborn insistence on survival is all that its inhabitants have. The film returns to a more conspicuously divided America, one in which the social order upheld the rage of aging men over the rights of a young soldier of color returning from war as a hero. A country where the best medication for a veteran beset by PTSD was so often found in the bottle. And a country in which the dream supposedly afforded to all was starting to shrink further and further away from the working classes, no matter their color or heritage.
The film, based on Hillary Jordan’s acclaimed novel, chiefly takes place on and around the farm of the McAllan family. In the early, narration-heavy scenes, Rees and Virgil Williams’ screenplay establishes the ideals about to be shattered for each of the film’s inhabitants. Laura (Carey Mulligan) is a self-proclaimed 31-year-old virgin eager to settle into domestic life, who’s less swept away than subsumed by Henry (Jason Clarke), a caring but firmly dominant type who declares that their family will relocate to the Mississippi Delta, where Henry will be able to claim a farm, and with it the American birthright of property ownership. In the early scenes, before the war hits home in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the couple lives in relative happiness, though Henry is left uneasy by the way in which Laura sometimes looks at Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), Henry’s consummate charmer of a brother.
But as is so often the case throughout history, where there’s one party coming to claim their own, there’s another one with an equal but less respected claim to that same territory. The Jackson family has worked the land for years, as many black families of the region did, the patriarch Hap (Rob Morgan) raising his brood to labor alongside him. But when Henry and the McAllans come to take over the farm, Hap can’t help but ruefully observe that “this land, this law says you need a deed, not deeds.” Hap’s years of back-breaking work are of little concern to Henry, who buys a tractor much to the family’s chagrin (“he can’t even tend his own land”). When America enters into WWII, Jamie is sent away, as is Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell). Those who remain encounter their own adversities, from sickness to drought to the hostility of an intolerant society. Laura observes that “violence is part and parcel of country life,” and it only becomes truer as Mudbound progresses.
In the intervening years, the families become linked in a number of increasingly precarious ways, and this is where Mudbound distinguishes itself from so many other stories of domestic racism and struggle. Rees keeps the drama human, avoiding many of the more common signifiers of the period in terms of a more contained, intimate look at how dependent so many were on one another during wartime, and how quickly hierarchies were re-established once the threat of global destruction no longer dominated the day-to-day conversation. Early on, Laura comes to depend on the Jacksons, and the matriarch Florence (Mary J. Blige) in particular, when she’s forced into raising children in the dangerous isolation of a farm several miles away from the nearest town. Despite the protestations of Henry’s father Pappy (Jonathan Banks), a virulent racist, Florence begins to serve as a daily presence in their lives.
Rees finds character in small strokes and the social mores of the era. Henry’s patriarchal dominance over Laura is treated by Rees for the borderline abuse it is, but the film also has an eye for the natural way in which Henry lords himself over her, long affirmed in his duty and responsibility. Though Hap and Florence have a more even-handed relationship, their goals are singular: buy their way out of the near-servitude in which they still find themselves. Henry often insinuates himself into their home without warning, as does Laura in her way, and Mudbound couches its commentaries on power dynamics in the simplest interactions between characters. Hap grabs his machete on instinct whenever an unexpected guest stops by. Pappy’s refusal to sit in the same car as Hap is a practical reality of life. When Hap falls off a roof and breaks his leg, it’s treated as apocalyptic; the family is so dependent on its all-hands-on-deck labor that such a thing could destroy their aspirations of autonomy, especially when Henry has no intentions of allowing a broken leg to interfere with his harvest.
But as it did for so many, Mudbound eventually sees the lives of its inhabitants undone after the conclusion of the war. When Jamie returns home, scarred by the horrors of his experience as a bomber pilot, Henry seems less concerned with his brother’s condition than by whether he intends to pull his weight in labor, even as Jamie falls ever further into despondence and drink. Ronsel returns home and goes from a celebrated tank sergeant to a young man who’s still not allowed to walk out the front door of the local general store, under threat of reprisal from the locals. And as the veterans begin to shift the lives of their respective families in new and hazardous directions, Mudbound evolves into a morality play about the devastation of war and the cruelty of its aftermath.
Rees, whose previous theatrical feature Pariah observed the struggles of living as a young, queer black woman in modern America, broadens her focus on race here and communicates something that’s initially familiar and eventually haunting about the cyclical nature of ignorance and oppression across the country, particularly in regions with a history of intolerance. But while the film does occasionally hit its themes on the nose, in the perpetually stained and despondent shots of the farm or the repeated emphasis on Laura attempting to cleanse her clothes and herself of toxic rot, Rees uses the familiarity of the film’s faded Americana to comment on something intrinsic about the lasting suffering of working-class Americans, and the divisions that exist even between people living at the same levels of society.
The film is painted in the hues of Laura’s early observation that “I dreamed in brown.” Rachel Morrison’s lucid, keen-eyed photography layers filth and dirt over even the more tranquil scenes, communicating pervasive exhaustion in nearly every frame. “Well-off” is a status relegated to the film’s early scenes of privilege; after a while, Mudbound offers one reminder after the next that poverty looks the same on everyone, regardless of color. It’s a sparse locale, one which Rees and Morrison envision with appropriately patient shots, punctuated by sudden and unnerving bursts of violence, personal and hostile alike. There’s a tactile exhaustion that the film communicates, and it’s wearying by design.
Though the decayed farm makes for an emphatic and somewhat obvious metaphor throughout, it’s one that Rees uses to thematically rich ends. The uniformly strong performances help in this as well, Mulligan’s withering anguish and Clarke’s firm hostility combining to form a poignant vision of declining optimism in the face of brutal reality. Blige does striking work as well, as a woman attempting to protect her own family from a vicious country, even as she increasingly realizes that there may well be an immovable ceiling for the kind of life the Jacksons can have. Through it, Blige portrays her as a woman of steely resolve, but not without moments of warmth; when she sits alone with Hap or with her children, it’s a window into the kind of contentment Florence could have known in another life.
The film’s standouts, however, are Mitchell and Hedlund as the devastated war heroes. A friendship forms between the two when they return, as kindred spirits who understand the other’s pain better than anybody. For Ronsel, the dignity he was afforded in Europe is something to be lamented, and something to be demanded back home. Their exchanges make for some of the film’s best scenes, Rees following along with their braggadocio and pain alike as they try to rebuild their lives in a world that’s never seemed less familiar. But when Jamie can’t even drive him into town without hiding him from the locals, and starts to fall under condemnation just for keeping company with Ronsel, Mudbound sugarcoats nothing about its opinion of how war heroes then and now are treated by those who benefited most from their service. Just like Hap once observed, deeds don’t matter in this version of America. It’s the piece of paper, owned by the richest among us, that always wins the day.
The film builds its encroaching dread and tragedy at a deliberate, almost operatic speed, rising to a devastating finale in which so many of its sins coalesce into a horrifying display of grievous injustice. It’s a bilious climax, one which Rees portrays with the same unyielding power of observation she brings to the film at large, and speaks to the film’s grander truths. What’s perhaps most remarkable about Mudbound is its emotional honesty, Rees rarely sidestepping the inner lives of her characters and never diminishing their own battles to live in an unlivable time, however wrongheaded they might be. Even in a film as frequently despairing as this one, Rees is generous in emotion and tone, speaking with a remarkable clarity against the cruelties of the film’s age, and of our own as mirrored by it. The fatalism of the film’s title rings true, as only one outcome truly awaits them all. But there’s more to be done yet in this life. There’s always more.