Film Review: Mudbound

Another moving production from filmmaker Dee Rees.
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Mudbound, the debut novel from Hillary Jordan on which the latest from talented Pariah director Dee Rees is based, won the Bellwether Prize for fiction in 2006. Author Barbara Kingsolver had founded the award six years earlier in order to recognize an unpublished work of fiction that addresses problems of social justice. In a story published by NPR in 2008, Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) said of the book, “I love that you understand everybody, even though everyone isn’t right, and in the long run some people are very wrong. But you begin by feeling their own perspective, and you have some sympathy for every character.”

The chapters in Mudbound the novel are each written from the first-person point of view of one of six characters, three of whom are white and three of whom are black. Mudbound the film maintains the novel’s emphasis on a multiplicity of voices by periodically allowing these characters to narrate their inner monologues through voiceover. This emphasis not only on interiority, but on plumbing the thoughts of people on different rungs of the social hierarchy, as well as the lyricism of the narrations themselves, do result in a novelistic kind of film (if we’re to understand the novel in its traditional form). The result of this emotional panorama, greatly aided by the sometimes sweeping, sometimes unnervingly intimate cinematography of Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station, Cake, Dope), is moving.

The two families of Mudbound are tied—or, some of their members might think, yoked—together by a piece of land in the Mississippi Delta. It is the 1940s and white Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) has decided to move his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their two small daughters from the suburbs of Memphis to a farm in the sticks, because, well, he has always dreamed of owning a farm. This is news to Laura, the cultured woman who years earlier agreed to marry Henry not because she loved him but because she was a 31-year-old virgin. To make matters worse, Henry’s loutish father “Pappy” (Jonathan Banks from “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”) will be living with them, while Henry’s charming brother Jamie (a very good Garrett Hedlund, channeling in look and voice a young Brad Pitt) is off fighting the war. The black sharecroppers, Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige), who dream of owning their own property outright one day but who for now work the land Henry has bought also have a son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who is a soldier overseas. When Jamie and Ronsel return, they become friends. But this is the Jim Crow South and from the first we are only waiting for something awful to happen.

Before then, quite a bit else happens, yet it is a testament to the deft hand of Rees that her adaptation (whose script she co-wrote with TV scribe Virgil Williams in his feature writing debut) never feels overlong, episodic or weighed down by a novel’s multitude of incident. Each character is so distinct in voice and action that although this is not a “character study” as the phrase has come to be understood through its assocations with indie films, its successes are nearly all functions of its strong characterizations. Kingsolver applauded the novel for its sympathetic portrayals, and Rees’ film achieves a similar feat almost without resorting to facile—that is, sensationalist or sentimental—grabs for empathy. Some of the screenplay’s insights ring soundly (Laura’s admission of her non-love for Henry: “I was so grateful to him it dwarfed everything else”), although either Rees/Williams or the story’s original author Jordan has a weakness for cleverness (Hap’s remark that it is a “deed” [a legal document] and not “deeds” [conscious actions] that matter for those who want to own land).

If the film missteps, it may be, arguably, at its end. This is a tricky point, because I do think a measure of grace should be sought after the truly terrible thing for which we have been waiting occurs. Large ideas, about family, friendship, race and loyalty, are thematically present throughout the film, but the problem with the finale may be that its Large Idea upstages the character through whom it is being conveyed. It is not the idea itself, which is stated outright in the film’s final line, which is the trouble, but the tidiness of its rendering. Given the often rich characterizations that have marked the film to this point, those final frames surprise a bit with their sentimentality.

But overall, Mudbound is beautifully shot, well-edited, well-acted, well-scored (by frequent Rees collaborator Tamar-Kali Brown) and, of course, well-directed. A few weeks ago Rees’ next project was announced: She will be adapting the Joan Didion political thriller, The Last Thing He Wanted. Said Rees, “I am so excited to be able to interpret this literary masterpiece.” Book-to-film fans should be similarly moved.

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