SPOILER ALERT: This review will discuss aspects of the movie's plot, however I will try to steer clear of any major spoilers. In any case, this movie is currently streaming on Netflix, and I highly encourage you to go watch it before reading my review. Then come back and join the discussion!
Mudbound was adapted by screenwriters Dee Rees (also the director of the film) and Virgil Williams from a novel by the same name written by Hillary Jordan. I begin with that factoid because this movie is so profoundly literary. The screenplay is extremely well-written, but more than that - the pauses of this film speak so much. There is room for the viewer to think and consider. The images moving across the screen accent the written words by painting at various times both beautiful pictures and harrowing nightmares. This is a movie that is interested in crafting a powerful narrative, but don't let that fool you - it is captivating as well.
So often our modern films are focused on world-sized themes and grandiose stories. Mudbound gets us to think on profound levels by focusing on the everyday doings of regular people. It is set in World War II America, with the story mostly taking place in the Mississippi Delta. The movie begins by showing us that a death has taken place, and while we are vaguely aware of some of the underlying implications, we don't know what really happened. The story then jumps back in time to fill in the gaps.
Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan play a couple who are just trying to get by on their Mississippi farmland. We see them early on as they first meet and start their life together. Henry McAllan (Clarke) means well, but he isn't the sharpest tool in the shed. In many ways, he is a product of his surroundings - including his racist father, Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks). Laura McAllan (Mulligan) seems like she isn't completely from this world. She is of it, but one step removed. Though she does love him, there is an undeniable distance between her and her husband. Part of it surely comes from her husband's acceptance and coddling of Pappy.
Also living on the land are the Jacksons, a black family who are also trying to get by. But their sights are set higher. They see the land around them as a prized possession, one that could literally change their lives. Family patriarch Hap (Rob Morgan) has a map of all the neighboring plots, and he has his eye on a piece of land for himself. The generations before him had worked these fields in slave labor. A plot of land meant a great deal. His wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige), quietly affirms his dreams as she tends to their family.
Later, we meet the two other principal characters - Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell). They are both fighting in World War II, which occurs at the same time as the movie's main plot. Jamie is Henry's brother, and Ronsel is the son of Hap and Florence. While they fight the war abroad, the war at home is raging under the surface.
Let me pause for a moment to praise the acting in this film. Most of the performances (Banks' borderline caricature performance aside) are quietly moving. Blige's performance is a perfect example of this, and she deserves a great deal of recoginition for her work on this film. It isn't flashy, but it is all the more powerful because of its tenderness. However, the best work in my opinion comes from Mitchell as Ronsel. His performance has more bravura at times, but he says so much in subtle glances and covered emotions.
We can tell that racial divides are still bitter in this Mississippi town. Even while the two boys are still away at war, we can see that old wounds continue to fester through flippant comments and hate-infused glares. On the other side of the world, these men fight side-by-side no matter their race. Back home, the racial divides are the war.
Throughout the film, the cinematography is fantastic. Much like 12 Years a Slave, the natural beauty of the land and sky is juxtaposed with the harsh realities of life. This film obviously showcases a different time period than 12 Years a Slave, but the shots of trees and sunsets felt eerily reminiscent to me.
Mudbound really picks up steam once the two boys return home after the war. They begin a budding friendship that builds to the film's heartbreaking climax. I won't give away any more than that, except to say that the film does not end in darkness. It reaches for a closing uplifting note that felt very significant to me.
My only detraction is a minor one. Mudbound feels longer than its 2 hour and 14 minute runtime. I don't have any problem with long films, but there needs to be a reason for the weight. For the most part, I felt Mudbound had that, but there are times where the pace seems to falter. This film has many narrative elements that it attempts to tie together. For all Mudbound's simplicity, its story is really quite complex. I think there is a powerful truth there - that simple lives are no less complex. Still, when trying to tie together all those narrative elements, its difficult to keep from letting important aspects fall to the background. At times I felt that Mudbound explored areas (the relationship between Jamie and Laura is an example) that detracted from its main focus and slowed down the storyline unnecessarily. As I mentioned earlier in this review, Mudbound's pauses give the viewer time to pause and think. That may seem like I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth. Certainly, for a film such as this, it needs some length and weight to give the viewer time to process what they are seeing. What I'm saying is that I wish Mudbound had removed some of the peripheral storylines that are not fully explored to focus more on providing the necessary pauses for its main storyline.
Having said that, I think Mudbound is clearly one of the best films I've seen in 2017, and I hope it garners award nominations. Most notably, I think the true star of this film is director and co-screenwriter Dee Rees. Though I didn't connect equally with all the various narrative elements, the ability to bring them all together in a way that is still compelling showcases considerable talent. I've said it once and I'll say it again - this is a finely-crafted film. Rees and the entire cast and crew deserve great praise for creating such a moving film. It has continued to sit with me long after I finished watching it. It is simple, yet powerful.
I think we can use a lot more of that these days.
Note on content: There is graphic violence in this film. Ironically, it comes more so when the storyline turns its focus away from the war abroad back to Mississippi life. The "n-word" is also used repeatedly, as are other profane words. And there is one scene depicting the soldiers abroad that has nudity in it. There are parts of Mudbound that are difficult to watch, and there are parts that are tender and sweet. It may not be appropriate for young viewers, but it is an undeniably powerful film.