In only her second feature as a director, Dee Rees (‘Pariah’) shoots high and mighty with ‘Mudbound’. The film is both intimate and epic in scale, hoping to tell a very specific story with broad implications about the power imbalance of class, race, and gender in America. It’s a fascinating project filled with powerful moments and rich characters. At the same time, ‘Mudbound’ can often sink under the weight of its own ambitions, attempting to do too much without enough space to breathe despite a leisurely running time.
Ultimately, ‘Mudbound’ is a tale of two families and their many varied perspectives. We enter through Laura (Carey Mulligan), a 31-year-old virgin who is essentially married off to Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and finds a way to make peace with that fate. Things get rough when Henry suddenly decides to move his wife, children, and particularly racist father (Jonathan Banks) to a cotton farm in Mississippi. He knows nothing of farming, but for some reason considers it a dream, even though the family has to live in a shack without running water.
The property also comes with tenants, a black family who have lived and died on the land for generations. The father, Hap (Rob Morgan), is a preacher who dreams of owning his own land, while the mother, Florence (Mary J. Blige), loves her large family as best she can. Power dynamics make things tricky for both families. Henry immediately establishes a harsh employee/boss dynamic rooted in an even less enlightened past. More complications arrive when Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Hap’s eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) return home from the battlefields of World War II. Jamie brings alcoholism and PTSD while Ronsel has a deserved chip on his shoulder after falling from war hero status to yet another oppressed black man in Mississippi. Together, they form a bond that pulls the families together and apart in heartbreaking ways.
‘Mudbound’ covers a great deal of ground. The original novel by Virgil Williams changed narrators and point-of-view in every chapter. Dee Rees’ script doesn’t go that far, but does offer interior voiceover for all the characters. The technique will frustrate Robert McKee purists obsessed with the idea that voiceover is lazy writing. However, it helps retain Rees’ vision to give valuable depth and insight to all her characters. Aside from the one-note cranky racist Pappy who doesn’t deserve depth, everyone has their reasons for their dreams and behaviors. Often they come by choice, but frequently they’re the result of societal structures and conditioning that create rules the characters feel the need to follow without thought. It leads to full characters worthy of empathy and respect, who are complex and human enough to resist easy moral classification.
The heart of the film settles into the relationship between Jamie and Ronsel, two troubled men who bond over an odd nostalgia for a war that scarred them but at least provided an easy sense of morality and purpose to their lives. The muddied lands of Mississippi only serve to frustrate and infuriate the increasingly drunken veterans. While there’s a genuine power to their friendships across racial divides, this isn’t a story of white saviors triumphing over hatred or black people losing a never-ending battle. It’s more difficult than that, and the ways the other men and women relate to each other are equally complicated by the power structures that define them. This leads to a fascinating film filled with wonderful performances that take full advantage of the depth of Rees’ script, with some stunning period imagery as Rees shoots the story like an epic. There’s much here to admire, contemplate, and feel moved by. Too much, almost.
Unfortunately, sprawling ambition can occasionally feel like a lack of focus. In the struggle to retain so many of the novel’s potent themes and messages, Rees often loses her way and the film grows turgid in the details. The multigenerational story likely would have been better suited to a miniseries adaptation that could have taken even more time to dig deeper than a movie that tends to dig deep only in some instances and skim the surface of others. Still, that’s not a deadly flaw. The movie ultimately is a potent attack on institutionalized racism and senseless hatred that preaches the power of love without ever pandering or losing sight of the most intense material. ‘Mudbound’ is not an easy movie to watch, but it’s an impossible one to forget or shake off. The filmmaking is impressive enough to suggest that sophomore director Dee Rees has a bright future ahead of her. If she’s aiming her ambitions this high already, there’s no telling where she’ll go as she continues to grow and improve as an artist.