Dee Rees’s Mudbound opens in media res: Two sparring brothers, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), are trying to bury their father on their Mississippi farm by digging a grave during a rainstorm. The entire endeavor is tinged with futility, as the horrible weather seemingly mocks their efforts. While they struggle, the African American Jackson family rides by with all their possessions strapped to their buggy as if they’re fleeing the farm. Henry—who is white—sees them and asks the patriarch Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) for help. Even with little context for the moment, viewers can tell from the look on Hap’s face and the ’40s period setting just how big a line Henry is crossing. It’s just as easy to see that, despite the quiet insult, Hap can’t decline.
Mudbound, which debuted on Netflix and in limited theaters last weekend, is an old-fashioned epic drama about race relations in the 1940s Deep South, adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. The film touches on the evil of the Jim Crow era, the oft-ignored post-traumatic stress suffered by servicemen returning from World War II, and the stifling sexism of the time. Mudbound is beautifully shot, well-acted, and surprisingly sweeping for a movie with a relatively small budget of $10 million; if it’s guilty of anything, it’s perhaps trying to do too much at once, which is understandable given its novelistic scope.
But Rees, whose debut fiction feature Pariah announced her impressive talent as a director in 2011, has a gift for smaller, multilayered moments, like Henry’s transgression in asking Hap to help bury his father. Even before the story gets underway, the audience can recognize how Henry is leveraging his institutional power over a black tenant living on his land. He can’t technically order Hap to assist him, but Henry is taking advantage of a terrible legacy of slavery and subjugation, one he’d never openly acknowledge.
Before it explains what exactly drove the Jackson family from Henry’s land or what killed Henry’s father, Mudbound then cuts back to somewhat happier times. Even then, it’s obvious that darker days are around the corner. Henry purchases his Mississippi farm seemingly as a way to prove his worth, to live independently off the land with his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their children. Hap is a tenant on Henry’s farm who dreams of buying his own land and living independently with his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their kids. The two families’ daily work, digging through the caked mud to plant their crops, is strikingly similar, but there’s a vast gulf between them.
Rees (who co-wrote the script with Virgil Williams) explores that divide in various episodic tales. When their children get whooping cough, Henry and Laura compel Florence to help nurse the pair back to health, eventually taking her on as a maid (a job she resents, but with a salary she can’t turn down). Henry’s virulently racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) moves to live with the family and starts associating with similarly toxic folk in town, as well as openly sowing discord between the McAllans and the Jacksons.
Viewers also see the exploits of war: Henry’s brother Jamie is a B-24 bomber, while Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) is a tank commander in the famed 761st Tank Battalion (the segregated unit known as the Black Panthers). Rees weaves in scenes of combat, of Henry and Ronsel both consorting with women in Berlin as the war winds down, and finally of their glorious returns home, where they’re celebrated as heroes by their family but nonetheless alienated by a country they’ve been away from for so long.
Rees takes care to touch on the viewpoints of every member in her ensemble: from the open hatred of Pappy to the more sublimated prejudice of Henry, from the weary pliancy of Hap (who, on the subject of white people, advises his son that there’s “no point in fighting, they’re gonna win every time”) to the understandable fury of Ronsel. The director is creating a portrait of an era in the way an old Hollywood epic would strive to do, both in her discursive storytelling and the gorgeous, Malickian photography of her cinematographer Rachel Morrison.
Still, Rees notably avoids the blinkered perspective such traditional stories often have; in doing so, she captures the racism of the period in ways both routine and heartbreaking. Mudbound never feels like it’s driving at one particular message, or identifying one villain to blame. A character like Pappy would be the cartoon nemesis of a simpler tale, a problem to be dealt with or ignored, but to Rees he’s a symptom, a festering boil that nobler characters like Jamie (or Henry, who quietly agrees with much of his father’s way of thinking) can’t lance. The bigotry of the time undergirds the film, but Mudbound doesn’t let us forget just how thoroughly it also permeated American life.
The only problem is, in trying to tell so many stories, Mudbound neglects to develop some of its more fascinating ones. The relationship between Ronsel and Jamie, who bond over their shared wartime traumas, is genuinely enthralling (and helped by Mitchell and Hedlund’s terrific performances), but it doesn’t even get going until more than an hour into the movie, which runs for 134 minutes. Laura’s internal monologue, meanwhile, plays a huge role in the first half, chronicling her and Henry’s courtship and the eventual cooling of their passions when they move to the farm, but it fades in importance as the film goes on, leaving her arc hanging.
Mudbound is the kind of movie that deserves a huge audience, which its release on Netflix may help secure. But as a slow-building story that shines in its subtler moments and in its mesmerizing shots of the harsh but mystical Mississippi landscape, it’s absolutely worth seeing on a big screen if possible. Beyond that, in a year when fissures in American race relations continue to be at the forefront of national discussion, Mudbound feels like a worthy antidote to the pop culture that has struggled to reflect this current reality. Rees’s film understands the country’s history of systemic oppression, but examines that through the fully imagined interiority of its characters—and without offering simple solutions.