Filled with so much of the sense of life and location, “Mudbound”, which is currently available on Netflix while getting a limited theatrical release in US, makes a vivid, powerful impression on us. Right from its very first scene, it transports us into its specific period background, and then it engages us via a bunch of distinctive characters, and then it moves us through their achingly human melodrama about love, hate, and resilience. Besides working well as a classic Southern family melodrama, it feels timeless in its contemporary perspective on race, gender, and history, and it goes without saying that the current situation of the American society makes the movie all the more relevant.
The story revolves around two different families living in a rural area of Mississippi around the 1940s: the McAllans and the Jacksons. The McAllans move to that area after Henry (Jason Clarke), the head of the family, buys land and a house for his lifelong dream of owning a farm, but it soon turns out that he made a very big mistake. He belatedly realizes that he is swindled by the previous owner of the house, so he and his family have no choice but to live in a shabby house located in his purchased land instead, which, not so surprisingly, does not look good at all with its muddy ground.
While Henry’s cantankerous racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) openly mocks him for that, his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) stands by him although she is not very pleased about how her husband unwisely puts her and their two children into poverty and misery. When she met him several years ago, she did not love him much, but his proposal gave her a chance to get out of her dull life as an unmarried woman in her family, so she grasped it without hesitation. She has willingly accepted her role in his life, but that does not mean she always obeys to him, and that is exemplified well by when she adamantly sticks to her position during their argument involved with her piano.
The Jacksons are a black family living and working in Henry’s land. Hap (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) have worked hard for many years, and they hope for a better future for them and their children, but, as Hap wearily muses in his narration, that always feels like a distant dream as he and his family struggle to make ends meet every year. While Henry seems to be nice and kind to them as their new employer, the nature of their racial relationship is evident whenever Henry demands something from Hap and Hap’s family, and Hap and Florence know too well to say no to their employer.
However, their son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) thinks differently after being sent to Europe during the World War II. During his time in Europe, he experiences far less prejudice and bigotry than before, and that experience surely makes him more aware of the unfairness of his world. When he comes back to his hometown after the war is over, his rather defiant attitude naturally draws the attention of some white folks, and we instantly sense an approaching trouble when he happens to be blocked by Pappy and two other white guys at a local grocery shop.
Meanwhile, Ronsel finds an unexpected friendship from Jamie (Garret Hedlund), Henry’s younger brother who also went to the war. While operating as a bomber plane pilot during the war, Jamie experienced a traumatic battle moment which he has been trying to dull with alcohol, and Ronsel understands that well because he also had his own grim battle experience. As they come to spend more drinking time together in private, they become each other’s best friend, but that is certainly something which will not look nice to Pappy and many other white guys in the town.
As deftly shuffling its main characters’ different perspectives, the screenplay by Director Dee Rees and her co-writer Virgil Williams, which is based on the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan, lets us understand and emphasize with each of them. It may depend on narration a bit too much, but the multiple narrations in the film are imbued with the qualities of rough poetry. Sure, they sound plain and simple at first, but they somehow feel eloquent and colorful in their own way, and, above all, they effectively function as our intimate window to the main characters’ thoughts and feelings.
After ably establishing the humanity of its main characters, the movie fluidly rolls them along the plot for what will happen among them next, and its main performers give one of the best ensemble performances of this year. While Jason Clarke is fine as a pathetic flawed man who is often oblivious to his many shortcomings, Garrett Hedlund gives his best performance as a charming but troubled guy struggling with his personal demons, and Carey Mulligan is suitably dowdy in her nuanced performance. Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige also are very good in conveying their characters’ weary resilience, and I particularly appreciate how Blige, who has been mainly known for her musician career, brings quiet dignity to what will be remembered as one of the notable breakthrough performances of this year. Jason Mitchell, a promising actor who recently drew our attention through his breakout performance in “Straight Outta Compton” (2015), brings considerable intensity to his character, and Jonathan Banks, a veteran actor who has been more prominent since his supporting performance in TV series “Breaking Bad”, is appropriately hateful in his vile role.
After making her second feature film “Pariah” (2011), Rees has been regarded as a talented filmmaker to watch, and “Mudbound” surely confirms that through its commendable achievement. Besides its stellar ensemble performance and thoughtful storytelling, the movie is also admirable in technical aspects including its authentic period atmosphere, and it is a bit shame that its many audiences will see on small screens instead of watching it at movie theater. I know it is a cliché, but I am willing to say that this is one of the best films of this year, and I really cherish it for evoking what William Faulkner once said: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.”