If ever a contemporary Southern story deserved the similarly rich, expansive chronological canvas afforded Giant years ago, it’s Mudbound — a stunningly photographed, tough-minded tale about the Sisyphean scrabbling of sharecroppers, white and black, in post-World War II Mississippi.
Row after row of crops — more often filled with sweat, water and more blood than necessary rather than a bountiful harvest — are framed as the horizon line of a sun as likely to set one day and never return as rise again. Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel, director and co-writer Dee Rees has delivered a story of the resentment, rage, racism and resignation embedded in American soil, with character perspectives often handed off mid-thought in a feverishly Faulknerian stutter.
Mudbound concurrently follows two families, the McAllans and the Jacksons.
The former is fronted by impulsive businessman Henry (Jason Clarke), who uproots his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), father (Jonathan Banks) and family to own a sharecropping farm in Mississippi. Meaning to occupy the main house and luxuriate as sharecroppers split their profits with them, the McAllans wind up on the wrong end of a handshake deal for the property — forced to live in a dilapidated shack alongside those better versed in the hardscrabble violence of country life.
The latter are longtime sharecroppers eager to establish a plot free of a percentage given to someone else — led by deeply religious Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige, in a revelatory performance). Florence’s empathy for those surrounding her is sincere but immovably ensconced in a sense of fear, that “love is a kind of survival” as she puts it. She’s got to shore up the comparative lack of pragmatism from Hap, whose own hair-trigger tendencies bring harm. The Jacksons also contend with Henry’s sense of entitlement that they pitch in on his family’s work; Henry’s racism — though hardly externalized like his pejorative-spouting father — illustrates itself in more institutionalized ways.
Each family loses the promise and innocence of a prodigal son to World War II — the dashing, artistically sensitive Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) from the McAllans and the headstrong, independence-seeking eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) from the Jacksons. Jamie’s enlistment seems perfunctory. Ronsel’s is clearly an escape to an admittedly more overt hell, but perhaps one more easily endured than the thousand cuts that whittle African-American life in the South.
Given his positioning as the film’s heart and Mitchell’s endlessly charismatic performance, we want to see more of Ronsel before the war; he’s literally introduced as he leaves the family behind to become a tank gunner. At the same time, we know that from which Ronsel is running all too well — finding unexpected social respites in the hamlets of Europe from a rage to which we know he must return all too soon. Neither is he unburdened by prejudices of expectation in his own home.
“You just come back. You come all the way back,” Florence says as a woman old enough to know how much men leave of themselves on a battlefield. Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams’ script is at its most lyrical in this lament for a mother’s love and the question of whether her Christian fervor invites a sort of twisted karmic retribution.
Jamie returns traumatized from a bombing raid gone sour, solaced only when soused and reluctantly helping on Henry and Laura’s farm. Hollywood has never quite known what to do with Hedlund, and he has beat a retreat here to his best performance, nailing the haunted gaze and the halted cadence of a bright-burning man whittled down to a pilot light dancing on the wind.
Mudbound gains poignancy and power as it plays out, especially as Jamie and Ronsel find common, and compassionate, ground as beasts of burden on the yoke of war’s wasting effects. It also too often fritters its focus away from them. With all due respect to Clarke and Mulligan, Henry and Laura’s peccadilloes and pathology are easily pegged early on, and a love triangle that comes to pass occasionally sends Mudbound teetering toward little more than an artier version of Pearl Harbor. Also, even at 134 minutes, Mudbound sometimes feels in a rush and its ending lacks the gut-punch it might have had with more room to roam for both families.
And yet even in Mudbound’s most narratively fallow or barren spots, small shoots sprout up to carry it through. Brief bursts of graphic war violence bump up against scenes of racist rancor back home that force us to question the myopia of what, exactly, Jamie and Ronsel might die for overseas. We also feel, forged unexpectedly from fire, a natural rhythm of humanity and humility develop between these two men.
Overall, Mudbound is a solid Southern story that expands well beyond believable heat, humidity and humming cicadas. Whatever shortcuts it takes do not rob its memorable complexity — suggesting seeds of positive change and productive compassion sometimes take root only fleetingly.
Mudbound, a Netflix original film, is currently available on the streaming service.