Six years have passed since director Dee Rees’ taut Brooklyn coming-of-age drama “Pariah,” and she’s been long overdue for tackling more ambitious material. As if making up for lost time, Rees returns with a sweeping period epic that operates on a far grander level.
With “Mudbound,” a dynamic post-WWII tale of racial tension and squandered opportunities in the deep south, Rees juggles a complex ensemble and heavy material with the confidence of a veteran storyteller. While not every aspect of this massive tapestry justifies its place in the 132-minute running time, Rees nevertheless delivers a complex look at social boundaries and the fragile efforts to correct the prejudices that define them.
Based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel (which draws from her own troubled family history), “Mudbound” explores its setting with an epic sweep. It’s a somber portrait of two families, one black and the other white, both struggling to get by as their opportunities dissolve into misguided ambition and deep-seated hate.
At first, the story focuses on the McAllen family, which moves from Memphis to rural Mississippi as the resolute Henry (Jason Clarke) and his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) attempt to develop a farm on desolate land. Henry’s slick, carefree younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) tags along and forges a dangerous bond with his sibling’s wife, while their racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks, reshaping his hardened wise guy from “Breaking Bad” into a more outwardly menacing character) lurks in the background, judging their every move.
From there, “Mudbound” introduces the plight of the Jacksons, the black family leasing a part of the McAllen’s land while attempting to keep their distance. Their home is overseen by stern patriarch Hap (Rob Morgan) and his solemn wife Florence (Mary J. Blige, in a minor but affecting turn). Their oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) can’t wait to get away, and eventually finds his opportunity at the start of the war.
It turns out that’s not an uncommon sentiment. Jamie McAllen heads to war at the same time, and when both men return from service years later they find a unique common ground in their alienation from their limited environment. Needless to say, their burgeoning friendship doesn’t sit well in a small town oozing with racial biases, and it sets the stage for a series of tragic complications.
“Mudbound” instantly establishes itself as a staggeringly beautiful vision, with cinematographer Rachel Morrison (“Fruitvale Station”) capturing the desolate landscape in deep greens offset by the ubiquitous browns of the muddy terrain. The imagery has such a powerful edge that it threatens to overwhelm the characters, and initially the pileup of circumstances nearly cancel each other out. The opening act juggles multiple unnecessary voiceovers right out of the Terrence Malick playbook, which may have worked better on the page than they do against visuals that speak for themselves. Thankfully, the ensemble eventually comes into focus and the voiceovers fall by the wayside.
While the Jacksons attempt to build cotton fields in a land overrun by floods, the McAllens harbor dreams of establishing their own tangible farmland, but ultimately the movie has less to do with the prospects of these goals than the two men who want nothing to do with it. When Jamie and Ronsel return home from battle, Ronsel has little patience for the bigotry of the town, and only Jamie seems keen on moving past it. Over a casual drinking session in which they recall their overseas experiences, their jovial reflections lead to a brief moment of levity that seems to exist outside of time, a hopeful nod toward the prospects of dissolving racial barriers through universal connections.
The friendship is doomed, but the idea that it could start to take shape endows “Mudbound” with a soulful purpose. Early on, she includes a brilliant cut that shifts from the Jacksons listening to reports of attacks on Pearl Harbor from the comfort of their home to the McAllens hearing the same broadcast in the cotton fields. Coupled with bracing wartime footage of both men in battle, these moments form a blunt but involving window into the forces that unify them. While the entire cast manages to avoid hyperbolic delivery, Hedlund and Mitchell stand out by delivering equally subtle performances in which they struggle to express their frustrations and only uncover some modicum of solace in companionship.
They’re complimented by a gorgeous backdrop that encompasses the breadth of a studio movie that no studio would make today. Rees constructs a fantastic sense of place: a soundtrack of jazz and gospel pairs nicely with the motif of messy cars snaking across wet roads, and the yawning farmland throbs with isolation and yearning. Even when the pace flounders, Rees is never too far from a scene of tremendous beauty, whether it involves a rousing gospel performance or the haunting image of a furious housewife from a neighboring farm, wandering across the mud fields in a maniacal attempt to seek justice against her philandering husband. Above all else, Rees excels at conveying the poetry of this mournful landscape, which allows its central conflict to develop an emotional foundation as dark events lurk on the horizon.
“They don’t own us,” Hap asserts when the McAllens attempt to employ the other family, but that assertion doesn’t stop the community from attempting to prove otherwise. A horrific showdown with the Ku Klax Klan could easily tip into crass shock value, but Rees portrays the incident with a degree of restraint that conveys the extent of the terrible moment without exploiting it.
None of that shields the movie from an unwieldy number of subplots, many of which distract from the friendship at its center. Mulligan’s plight has been shoehorned into a story that doesn’t have much to do with her, and she comes across as a caricature not unlike Groff’s growling racist. Rees relegates them to animating devices that impact the lives of more believable characters. Nevertheless, Laura is one of the few people in “Mudbound” who diagnoses the pervasive feeling afflicting all of their lives when she asserts, “I felt like I was no longer visible.” Everyone in this aimless existence roams through it like a phantom of unrealized potential.
That’s the main linking device between “Mudbound” and “Pariah,” in which a young gay teen finds herself at odds with her judgmental relatives. While “Mudbound” is rooted in a precise historical moment, it’s also a sobering commentary on timeless struggles. One of the few African-American filmmakers working on this scale, Rees has unearthed fertile terrain for exploring a profound sadness at the root of the country’s fragmented identity, and “Mudbound” suggests she’s on the brink of even greater explorations of that theme. It may not be a perfect achievement, but it’s perfectly suited to prove that she’s blossomed into a major film artist.
“Mudbound” premiered in U.S. Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.