Mudbound has all the makings of a Southern Gothic-esque Faulkner novel. It primarily takes place in Mississippi and features multiple narrators as well as complicated family dynamics. The film is also a brutally searing portrait of the Deep South, racism, family, and the effects of war on the mind. It can be tough to watch at parts, refusing to shy away from violence whether it be on the battlefield or the cotton fields.
Mudbound is the story of two men and their families during and after World War II. One is white, and one is black. The white family is the McAllan family. The McAllans are farmers in Mississippi, comprising of Pappy (Jonathan Banks), Henry (Jason Clarke), Laura (Carey Mulligan), and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). The black family is the Jackson family, tenant farmers on the McAllan’s land. Their family includes Hap (Rob Morgan), Florence (Mary J. Blige), Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), and the three children. During World War II, Ronsel and Jamie went to fight in the war while their families went through their own trials at home. Following the war, Jamie suffers from PTSD and is upset about how the country is fundamentally unchanged since the war while Ronsel experiences survivor’s guilt and is forced to confront racism at home.
The script is one of the most remarkable aspects of Mudbound. The film uses flashbacks and multiple narrators yet isn’t difficult to follow and miraculously allows each character to develop fully. Scenes creates compelling drama which the actors execute perfectly. Carey Mulligan supplements Mitchell’s and Hedlund’s performances as a housewife, Laura, dragged out into the country who is full of silent strength and resolve, and isn’t afraid to break away from the dutiful housewife mold and get her hands dirty if need be. And last but not least of many fine performances, Jonathan Banks as Pappy might be the most despicable, stomach-churning, and bigoted characters to appear on screen this year.
The technical aspects of Mudbound are noteworthy as well. DP Rachel Morrison manages to create great shots that impressively show the environment around them and don’t stray from the tone of the scene. From the sparse, desolate, muddy landscape of a cotton farm in Mississippi to the battlefields of Europe, each shot manages to say something. The musical score by Tamar-kali punctuates each scene perfectly, helping to develop the spiritual connection each character feels. Tamar-kali and Rachel Morrison are both names to watch for in the coming years.
Mudbound has a trio of themes coursing through the film: survival, the past, and spirituality. Every character in the film is trying to survive one way or another. Ronsel and Jamie were trying to survive the war and then have to come to terms with their own inner conflicts upon their return. Henry, Laura, and Pappy are just trying to survive the farm, the mud, and the changing times unfolding before them. Hap, Florence, and the other Jackson children also try to survive life at the farm, but also the racism they constantly experience in trying to carve a piece of land that they can call their own.
The past affects the lives of everyone in the film. Jamie tries to forget the horrors of war and dries to drown it out with alcohol; Ronsel also deals with the horrors of war but is remorseful about the life he might have left behind in Europe. Pappy wants to return to the past, where blacks ‘knew their place and didn’t talk back’, the past where he was in control. Laura wants to return to the comfortable life she had before they moved to the farm. Many of the characters either have a vendetta with or fond memories of the past, sometimes both.
In relation to spirituality, the Jacksons rely on guidance from God to help them through their lives and to help them reach the Promised Land. They and other black tenant farmers have service in a half-built church and often sing hymns together. In the middle of a battle, Jamie made a deal with God and believes that he must keep up his end of the bargain. He has to make and keep his peace with God.
Mudbound isn’t the easiest film to watch with its scenes of intense and brutal violence. Despite these scenes, the film is well-worth watching for its scorching commentary on racism, war, and the Deep South. All the great performances, the cinematography, the music, and the screenplay help elevate the film to the well-crafted piece it is. To many viewers, Mudbound announces a number of exciting new names to look out for, especially director Dee Rees. With Mudbound, she has proclaimed herself a new major directing talent that we should all keep a keen eye on.