Upon its opening, Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” draws you in with period piece elements. There is a sense of underlying ominousness — albeit undefined — as we are introduced to the home front of the American South before and during World War II. Similar to Terrence Malick, Rees introduces her ensemble with voiceovers (which continue throughout the picture) that give articulation to the inner thoughts of the charactersin the same wandering, introspective way in which our thoughts are produced and relayed.
Weaved by race, war and economy — this story is one of many moving parts. Opening with a brothers burial for Pappy McAllan, the film jumps back to Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke, “Zero Dark Thirty”), a businessman from Memphis, who marries Laura (Carey Mulligan, “Drive,” “The Great Gatsby”) and decides to buy farmland and a house in Mississippi. The seller has swindled him on the deal, and the family — having sold and spent everything on the move — must live on the farm alongside Henry’s elderly, racially-prejudiced father. On the land lives the family of Hap (Rob Morgan, “Stranger Things”) and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige, in a breakout, Oscar-nominated performance) and their children of various ages. While they are indeed renters, remaining racial prejudices make it seem like they are not welcome. The family constantly has to deal with requests from Henry (Hap for workand Florence for child care) and general mistreatment from Henry McAllan’s father. Hap knows the farmland through and through, however (much more than the city-familiar Henry), and proves crucial to the daily operations of the McAllan property.
Henry has a younger brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, “Inside Llewyn Davis”) who leaves the U.S. to be a fighter pilot in World War II. The Jackon’s eldest, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”), is in the war, too — receiving a high honor for helping his fellow troops. While overseas, Ronsel falls in love with a native while in Europe and never quite forgets her upon returning home.
The story follows occurences on the farm while the two men are at war, the characters’ respective wartime experiences, and the aftermath of them returning — the bond they form, and the consequences of their presence.
Thus, the plot and its possible complications are set. Race, post-traumatic stress, intimacy, history, economic mobility and more themes of everyday life loom large in this film. What makes Mudbound special is how it’s able to drive home these themes, elicit emotion and make broad societal points all while not feeling forced. And it provides a good story, too.
Voiceovers workas an insightful tool to help us understand the characters and guide the plot. And while the film covered many years, the yearnings of the characters and their motivations seem to stitch together timelines — so the viewer never gets lost in the details. The digital cinematography, driven by the work of Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison (“Dope,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Black Panther,” and now the first woman ever to be Oscar-nominated for Cinematography), shows the lights, breezes and mud of the Mudbound world — translating physical and emotional hardships of farming, war and societal tensions from ideas to a tactile, tangible on-screen presence.
Dee Rees’ narrative has a powerful, moving, sad and tear-jerking climax, one set up by the previous two hours of artistic cinematography, plodding character development and weaved timelines. Dee Rees presents a circumspect inspection of these characters throughout the film, and they march into the film’s end fully formed and with agency, thus making the ending authentically weighted and powerful.
The viewer will surely react viscerally to what transpires, but that is the intention. These characters are a product of the time they live in and in many ways the times that came before them. The ending shows us that our past, and thus present, can never be perfect.
But when we focus on life and unifying things — such as the next generation, the bonds between characters because of life experience — society can begin to slowly trudge out of the mud.