Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name by director Dee Rees (Pariah), Mudbound tells the tale of two families in post-WWII rural Mississippi, divided by race but tied together by the hard, hostile land that the title alludes to.
There’s Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), who has brought his refined, city-bred wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan) into this hardscrabble world where he plans to work the land like his father, racist patriarch “Pappy” (Jonathan Banks). And there’s the black tenant farmers who live on the McAllans’ land, the god-fearing Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), and their passel of children. The power dynamics are clearly defined along racial lines: this is the Jim Crow south, after all, and black men use the back door and don’t raise their eyes to their alleged betters.
The situation changes when to veterans return from their World War II service: Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who served in the tank corps, and Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), who flew bomber missions over Europe. Both are struggling with PTSD and their place in the world, and their wartime experiences bond them in friendship. Such a relationship, however, cannot be countenanced by the locals, and violence is inevitable.
Mudbound is handsomely shot, well acted and possessed of a rare and mournful lyricism, but it feels off by degrees. It’s issues are common to literary adaptations: a hesitancy when it comes to understanding what to keep and what to cut, where to focus the cinematic narrative. The friendship between Jamie and Ronsel is the obvious crux here, but director Rees and her co-writer, Virgil Williams, do their best to encompass as many voices and viewpoints from the source novel as they can, and in doing so muddy the waters somewhat, if you’ll pardon the expression.
What that gives us is an arresting portrait of a place, people, and time, but a weaker story than one might hope for, which leaves us with a very good movie instead of a great one. Still, there’s much to admire and enjoy here: uniformly strong performances (Blige is a quiet miracle, and let’s acknowledge that Hedlund is doing much better as a character actor than a leading man), a pinpoint sense of specificity and detail, a restrained, downbeat visual style that gives the characters room to live and the incidents we witness their full emotional weight. Still, while Mudbound is a very worthy film, that odd and nagging lack of coherence stops it from being the masterpiece it so very nearly is.