“Violence is part and parcel with country life. You’re forever being assailed by dead things.” So Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) tells us as she slowly accepts, if not acclimates to, the realities of the farm life in rural postwar Mississippi. It’s not a life she chose; her stubborn husband Henry (Jason Clarke) made that decision for her, picking up their young family from their comfortable suburban life and relocating to a seemingly cursed stretch of land owned by his family. They’re not alone there; the Jacksons, a black tenant-farmer family work the land, and when the two families become neighbors in the muck and mire, their fates intertwine in subtle, illuminating, and ultimately, yes, violent ways.
What becomes clear early on in Dee Rees’s sprawling, engrossing southern epic is that violence isn’t particular at all to country life; one just more often than not has to look it in the eyes there — to kick the dead mouse off the porch or shoot the diseased mule or bury your loved ones by hand. Mudbound begins its story in the late 1930s, and it’s not long before the U.S. has entered World War II, with young men from both the McAllan and Jackson family shipping out to the front. When they return, their shared but separate experiences of violence draw them together across racial lines. Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) has returned a scarred, haunted alcoholic; Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), the Jacksons’ oldest son, is restless and disillusioned, having gotten a taste of a better life while stationed in Europe. The muddy, angry, impoverished American South feels stuck in time, the land itself refusing to progress.
As Ronsel and Jamie bond, so do Laura and Ronsel’s mother Florence (Mary J. Blige), though in a more complicated way. Laura calls Florence over for help one night when her daughters come down with whooping cough, and soon she hires her as a nanny of sorts, drawing Florence away from her own children. Despite the unequal nature of their relationship, the two become close; Laura becomes an ally for the Jacksons in small ways behind Henry’s back. But despite these bonds, the relationship between the Jacksons and the McAllan’s is inherently lopsided. The McAllans constantly asking for more, more, more of the Jackson clan, in the form of their time, their pain, and their dignity. Without the aid of institutionalized slavery, and seemingly without knowing it, Henry and Laura have completely co-opted their neighbors’ lives, in ways far more subtle than Henry’s outright racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks) could have the imagination for.
Mudbound could have easily turned out as a kind of dusty, respectable period drama that looks important while advancing nothing, but it exceeds expectations with every new layer. It’s the kind of movie that feels like it’s based on a novel in the best way; Rees and Virgil Williams’s deft scripting and sense of pace manage to cram the emotional payoff of an entire season of television into two hours without feeling rushed or superficial. After I saw the film earlier this year at Sundance, and then heard the news that it was being picked up by Netflix, it seemed a shame to me that most people would experience a film so big feeling on the small screen. But rewatching it on my own small screen for this review, I found it had lost none of its can’t-put-it-down magnetism; its two hours and 14 minutes feel like a modest binge-watch. This is aided by some of the best use of voice-over in a dramatic film in some time, the ensemble of characters chiming in at different points, not necessarily to explain what’s happening, but to give us a glimpse into their minds, their individual worries. Florence ruminates on motherhood, and caring for both for her own children and other people’s. Her husband Hap (Rob Morgan) bitterly reflects on the seemingly arbitrary privileges of land ownership, of the deeds you own and the deeds you do. Taken together the characters form a chorus, sometimes in harmony with one another, sometimes clashing.
It’s only when Pappy and the Klan take the wheel in the film’s climax that it feels like Mudbound stretches. It’s not that racial violence wasn’t (and isn’t) a part of life in the South, but up until then Mudbound’s bogeymen were more elusive, its characters’ quandaries more existential than a bunch of hooded monsters. The Klan sequence is horrifically violent and effective in its nightmarish-ness, but it cuts short at least one character’s journey that still felt rich with dramatic possibility. But that’s the nature of racism, I suppose — it’s always more boring and predictable than whatever it cuts down. Rees tries to throw us a bone by having it both ways in the film’s final scene, but it’s a testament to Mudbound’s dramatic rigor that by then, we know a dream when we seen one.