Dee Rees’ poignant film adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 debut novel Mudbound deals in hopes and dreams promised, unfulfilled, and broken.
When I think of the farm, I think of mud. Encrusting knees and hair. Marching in boot-shaped patches across the floor. I dreamed in brown.
Mudbound is an uncompromising deconstruction of the American Dream itself following the lives of two families, one black and one white, who toil on the same land struggling to make ends meet in the face of classism, privilege, oppression, and systemic racism. The film pulls no punches, but it has a poetic grace in the way it observes its characters, delving into their souls and exhibiting their pain with dignity. Mudbound is an ambitious social epic on a personal, human scale, and it is very much a reminder of where we’ve come from and how prevalent these societal problems remain.
It’s also an ensemble film in the truest sense, as the story is seen through the eyes of six main characters who serve as narrators at intervening moments. Laura McAllan (Carrie Mulligan) is a 31-year-old virgin married to a man she doesn’t love (Henry, played by Jason Clarke), whisked away from her cozy domestic life in Tennessee to a farm in 1940’s Jim Crow-era Mississippi. Henry has always dreamed of owning land, but isn’t necessarily prepared for the hardships of that responsibility — including taking care of his elderly and overtly racist pappy (Jonathan Banks). His brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) has answered his country’s call and joined the military to fight Japanese imperialism and Nazi tyranny. So has Ronsel Jackson, (Jason Mitchell) whose family works as sharecroppers on the McAllan farm (and have for generations before it was McAllan owned, first as slaves). They are led with strength and determination by his father Hap (Rob Morgan) and his mother Florence (Mary J. Blige); the Jacksons dream of one day owning their own land and for their children to rise above their station in ways they never could. But mostly, they pray for Ronsel’s safe return.
Having six narrarators, plus a handful of prominent supporting characters, could make for a confusing narrative muddle, but Rees deftly flows between their points of view giving each character equal weight. Some are more compelling than others, but they all fit into this American mosaic with masterful precision. The core of the story eventually deals with both Ronsel and Jamie’s return from the war and how they grapple with reintegrating into a society they no longer conform to. That relationship produces the film’s finest moments as two men from different backgrounds come together in a way that their country neither understands or allows. In the Army, Ronsel was a Sergeant in charge of an African-American tank battalion who fell in love with a white German woman. During one of his fateful conversation with Jamie he muses: “Over there, I was a liberator. People lined up in the streets for us, throwing flowers and cheering. And here, I’m just another nigger pushing a plow.” Jamie was a decorated flight captain who now suffers from PTSD and alcoholism, haunted by the memories of the friends he lost and the men he may have killed. Together they find comfort in the bond they share, a bond only brothers-in-arms could understand. Both Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell give nuanced performances in their respective roles.
The other characters in the film circle around this doomed friendship, providing counterpoints to their experience. Carrie Mulligan’s Laura continually settles for less because society tells her it must be so; she dutifully defers to a husband she doesn’t love. It’s no wonder she falls for his brother, whose roguish handsomeness and emotional scars are a world away from the dreariness of her damaged domestic life. Rob Morgan’s Hap Jackson sacrifices his dignity and his physical well-being on a daily basis to keep his family safe with the faint hope of a better future. His wife Florence, played with quiet motherly devotion by a surprisingly impressive Mary J. Blige, keeps the family bonded together even when life is at its most trying. Jason Clarke’s Henry tries to appease the forces of the world while falling victim to his own insecurities and deeply rooted family racism. These are tragic characters overcome by circumstance.
Every aspect of the film’s production reflects its premise of dreams unfulfilled. Production Designer David J. Bomba does beautifully deconstructed work, from the dilapidated farmhouse to the unfinished church where the Jacksons worship. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison inflates the films’ brown hues, making the mud and muck of the farm a character unto itself while basking in deep saturation and the sunlit glow of the rural south. Tamarkali’s score is often low and melancholy, giving way to brief glimpses of renewed faith through stirring a capella gospel music. The costumes by Michael T. Boyd reflect the hardship of the land and the placement of its people. Mako Kamitsuna’s editing flows from serene, thoughtful moments to brutal, hard truths with expertly crafted timing — all guided by the studious direction of Dee Rees. The elegance of the adaptation itself cannot be ignored, with Virgil Williams and Rees crafting a script that is prudent in its depiction.
Mudbound isn’t an easy film to digest. It has the air of a melodramatic, Old Hollywood epic in its depiction of a family saga covering the span of many years, but its execution is far more pensive and its subject matter all too timely. The mistakes of our past continue to haunt and divide us today. How do we move forward and break the bonds of hatred in this country and in our society? The answers are not easy and plenty of promises are left broken, but there must always be hope to find the light in spite of our perils. Mudbound culminates with a series of tragic events, but it is wise to not end there. Instead it grants us a coda that reflects the love and hope we must continue to have for one another and for our future. That is the dream we must always aspire to. Mudbound is a reflection of that dream, and as such it is one of the finest films of the year.