NYFF Review: ‘Mudbound’

Mudbound | Dee Rees | NYFF 2017

Mudbound is the latest from director Dee Rees, who adapted Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel of the same name alongside Virgil Williams. We see how life has unfolded in post-World War II era Mississippi, where two families, one white (the landowners) and one black (the sharecroppers), share and work on the same land even as racial tensions are still very much as tense as ever.

The story begins mysteriously with McAllan family (the landowners), with Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and his brother Jamie (Garett Hedlund) burying their Pappy (Jonathan Banks) during a violent rainstorm. When they have trouble lifting the coffin they flag down the Jackson family (the sharecroppers) to help them with the task. Only there’s a clear tension in the air lingering between the two sides and this tense sequence helps set the tone for everything that soon follows.

Rees and Williams’ script helps us navigate the waters with various voiceover narration from varying members of the families. We learn that both families send one son off to fight in World War II with Jamie serving as an Army pilot flying B-25 bomber aircraft while the Jackson’s eldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), enlists in the Army infantry and commands a Sherman tank. Ronsel gets to experience life race free in Europe, even falling in love with a White Woman and able to just be himself for the first time ever. But upon returning home both her and Jamie are both happy to see their loved ones again but also disappointed by the reality of returning home as nothing has changed in this world despite their efforts fighting in the war.

Things get complicated when Jamie clearly fancies his brother’s wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), who clearly is not in love anymore with her husband and deep down everyone else can sense both Jamie and Laura fighting their urges towards one another. While Ronsel is welcomed home in loving fashion, the rest of the world still acts as racist and demeaning as ever, including a tense run-in with Pappy, whose bigoted and racist views are hiding in plain sight. This causes a problem when Ronsel and Jamie strike up a close friendship, bonding over their war efforts and their inability to reconnect with civilian life that clearly is as backwards and hateful as ever.

The friendship between Ronsel and Jamie and the budding romance between Jamie and Laura are the strong suit of Mudbound’s script. Sadly, the script relies too heavily on voice narration to the point that it slowed down the momentum of the film and often took me out of the film. Which was a shame because Mudbound is a film that has a lot of smart and timely things to say about race relations and racism that are still sadly bubbling over even in 2018.

Cinematographer Rachel Morrison captures the muddy nature of the land with an intense sense of realism that it truly feels like another character in itself, keeping these characters stagnant and racism alive and well. All of the performances are top notch here: You believe the friendship shared between Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell and you absolutely hate Jonathan Banks’ character which is a clear sign that he did his job well. There’s fine work from Rob Morgan, Jason Clarke, and Carey Mulligan but it’s the performance from Mary J. Blige that is a true standout and quite an accomplishment from the singer.

There’s a lot to like about Mudbound which even with its over-reliance on narration found a way to move me a great deal by it’s intense climax which really makes up for many of its flaws in a big, big way. It’s the sort of ending that definitely finds a way to tie in to present day thematically and feels like a gut punch as sadly it seems that we have found a way to move closer to the events in Mudbound than to better ourselves in the way that we should be so many years removed from World War II.

Rating: 8.0/10