Mudbound is an odd word, but a perfect title for the film directed by Dee Rees and based on a novel by Hillary Jordan. The landscape, farmland in Mississippi, is frequently muddy, the characters, until a dramatic ending, are metaphorically stuck in mud, and the opening scene has two brothers digging their father’s grave in mud, one of them almost buried in it. They find the skull of a slave, and one brother notes that their father would hate it if he knew he’d end up in a slave’s grave.
Set right before, during, and after World War II, Mudbound deals with race. It is a bit like The Best Years of Our Lives as written by William Faulkner. Two families, one white, one black, will intersect. The black family are sharecroppers who have worked a farm for years and not gotten any closer to owning their own land. Their patriarch is Hap (Rob Morgan), a decent man who knows his place in society, and his dutiful wife (Mary J. Blige). He has a passel of children, the oldest being Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who goes off to war and becomes a tank commander under Patton.
The white family are the McAllans. Henry (Jason Clarke) has purchased the farm that Hap and family work. He has dragged his cultured wife (Carey Mulligan), who was well into spinsterhood when married, to rustic surroundings. Henry’s brother Jamie (Garret Hedlund) goes off to war and becomes a bomber pilot. The boys’ father (Jonathan Banks) is an unrepentant bigot and all around horrible human being.
Mudbound is good in fits and starts, but suffers from some failings. One is the excessive narration. I’m not like Robert McKee, who believes there should be no voice-over narration in a film, but Mudbound’s is far too much, and you can tell it comes from a novel. At one point, Mulligan pays for a doctor for Hap, and Blige, in a voice-over says something to the effect that she had never realized all white folks aren’t the same. This is totally unnecessary, as Blige’s face says everything we need to know. In most cases, if the acting, directing, and editing are good enough, voice-over isn’t needed.
Secondly, this is well-trod ground. Does this film say anything new about racism and pre-civil rights America? Except for a post-war friendship between Hedlund and Mitchell (which gets them both in serious danger) not really. Mitchell finds that he is treated better in Europe than America, but we’ve seen that before in many forms. The last act, which is gripping, is nonetheless familiar, as the Klan hoods and noose come out of storage.
The acting is wonderful here, especially Mitchell, who I didn’t recognize as the same man who played Easy-E in Straight Outta Compton, and Morgan. Banks is a superb villain, if one-note. Interestingly, I found Clarke and Mulligan’s characters to be underwritten and therefore their performances wasted.
Mudbound was produced by Netflix. It will be interesting to see how much attention the Academy pays to it.