Mudbound is a drama of vast scope and ambition — the kind of movie that’s destined either to soar or to fall flat on its face. Dee Rees’ harrowing and meticulously crafted drama achieves the former — in fact, it’s relentlessly good.
Mudbound follows two families from the rise of World War II through the aftermath of that great struggle. Their lives are entwined by the land they work — a farm in rural Mississippi. The McCallans come there as the new owners, while the Jacksons have long lived and worked on the land. Several characters share the duty of telling the story with voiceover that accompanies the on-screen action.
It’s impossible to say whose story this is, it’s filled with so many heroes, and a number of villains too. There’s Laura McAllen (Carey Mulligan in a typically wonderful turn), put upon wife to Henry (Jason Clarke) who lives for her children, as her husband is more content to live for his own ambitions than his family’s benefit. Laura does, perhaps, the heaviest lifting in situating us in this world and a few of her matter-of-fact observations (“I didn’t always care for Henry’s lovemaking, but it never occurred to me to say no,”) are nearly as heartbreaking, on reflection, as some of the on-screen events.
Then there’s Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige in a transfixing performance), a woman in an infinitely happier marital situation who must live for her children and the hope that the world might afford them more opportunity and kindness than it ever has shown her. She and her husband, Hap (Rob Morgan) are resolute and full of pride in the work they’ve done and the children they’ve raised. But while that pride gives them strength to keep going, it’s not something they can present to the world. Society won’t have it. And when Henry’s brother, Jamie McAllen (Garrett Hedlund doing his best work to date), and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell turning in another great performance), the Jackson’s eldest son return from the war, they strike up a friendship society won’t have either.
Society is best symbolized by Henry’s father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), a backwards, rabid racist who deals in cruelty as if it’s a passionate profession. Banks is supremely effective and the collective repulsion he inspires in our key players (Henry aside) is an elegant example of what works best about the film. Instead of examining the rift between these two families, it lays bare their similarities. It’s grim and raw and it leaves no time for manufactured sentiment. Rather, we get an unflinching portrait of the struggle for progress, and the high cost at which it’s most often won.
Ultimately, Mudbound is a collective tale of one of the most trying times in American history, where the worries of the day are exacerbated by personal cares and cultural attitudes. And it is brilliantly, heartbreakingly executed. With so many perspectives and such an ambitious narrative this picture might have been a disaster, but Rees delivers a vision that’s flawless, or so near to it that any imperfections are swept away by the emotional heft and aching beauty it delivers.