Anger boils beneath the surface of Mudbound, a literate period drama about generational and sociological collision between two families in post-WWII Mississippi within the twenty years or so between that and the Civil Rights era. The screenplay by Virgil Williams and director Dee Rees (based on Hillary Jordan's novel of the same name) is ambitious in its intentions to explore systemic racism on a microcosmic scale within an era that was, very slowly but surely, starting to see an enlightenment within the younger generation and that has just seen a world war. Both families have had sons return from that war, and both sons returned with a reshaped worldview.
In the film's best scene, a brief but illuminating one, those sons talk about their experiences in the war and after it. Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund, in a revelatory performance as a man whose outward strength is a facade) doesn't miss killing people from 20,000 feet in the air as a bomber pilot, but he does miss his brothers-in-arms and, most of all, the women. Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell, increasingly world-weary) hasn't missed the open and casual prejudice that, because this is the cycle of life, returns in full-force following his service to a country that seems to hate him. Neither man can quite grasp the other's crisis of existence - Jamie turns to drink, Ronsel to the thought of leaving home - but each understands, on a fundamental level, what the other went through in battle.
Their families, when they return to them, are generally less understanding of their troubles, as any family is going to be when they weren't present with their sons on the battlefield. Jamie's father Pappy (Jonathan Banks), apart from being openly racist and (in one terrifying scene) cooperative with a certain group of men who violently hold those same ideals, is disappointed that his "war hero" of a son (He cannot even say the phrase without a sardonic snarl) didn't have the guts to kill up close. His brother Henry (Jason Clarke) has bought a farm, his life-long dream, and Henry's wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) nurses a secret attraction to her brother-in-law.
Ronsel's family doesn't want him to feel attached to his home after months, perhaps more than a year, abroad, and indeed, at first, Ronsel just wants peace and quiet. His father (played by Rob Morgan) works as a sharecropper on Henry's land, the morbid irony unspoken but clearly resonating between the two within their dynamic. Economic privilege aimed toward the McAllans pushes Ronsel's father and mother (played by Mary J. Blige) into debt, and a deep, pervading injustice in the form of open racism from townsfolk and quieter tolerance of racism from other characters who don't want to get in the way is the main contributing factor to a devastating finale that places the family in permanent, tragic conflict.
Some of the narrative and character avenues go unexplored - such as the depth of Jamie's eventual alcoholism, his potential affair with Laura, and a revelation regarding Ronsel's destiny - but the ambition on display is undeniable, particularly in its pair of bookending sequences. They are the same: a grave-digging that starts the movie and gains incredible power when it ends the movie and we are given the context of what happens in between. Mudbound is a deeply felt epic - crucial and powerfully performed.
Jason Clarke (Henry), Garrett Hedlund (Jamie), Carey Mulligan (Laura), Rob Morgan (Hap), Jason Mitchell (Ronsel), Mary J. Blige (Florence), Jonathan Banks (Pappy).
Directed by Dee Rees and written by Rees and Virgil Williams, based on the novel by Hillary Jordan.
No MPAA rating.
Released on November 17, 2017.