There is something eerie and disquieting about the Mississippi Delta in Mudbound. The distinctive burn of the Southern sun mingles with the tension between black and white residents, the squelch of wet mud beneath their feet, and the dust that filters through the air. Brought to life by Rachel Morrison’s enthralling cinematography and Dee Rees’s impeccable direction, Mississippi is the perfect backdrop for these characters. It’s rendered into the stubborn idleness of farm life and bound by the normality of Jim Crow-era bitterness present in the years following the second World War; to be stuck, both together and in place.
But, while Mudbound suggests that deviation from this idleness or this prejudice is impossible for some, a quiet sliver of change is offered. The intimate friendship that grows between war veterans Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), respectively the brother and son of two families, one white and one black, cohabiting on a farm owned by the McAllans, is an illustration of what late 1940s rural Mississippi despises. Jamie, a white man, and Ronsel, a black man, must hide their friendship from the hateful white citizens in their town, most notably Jamie’s father, ‘Pappy’.
Perhaps the most universally felt emotion in this movie is anger. Rees and Virgil Williams’ adapted screenplay from the novel of the same name hones in on each character (there are more than a few, though not too many, who are important to the narrative) with unwavering dedication. Each character’s anger is nuanced and complex, ranging from the spiteful racism that churns within Pappy, to the the feeling of injustice Ronsel experiences as he navigates a town whose attitude toward him he hoped would have changed after his service in the war.
It reaches husband and wife Henry and Laura McAllen’s novel life on the farm. Laura (Carey Mulligan), a lover of their previously domestic life, views the farm as something foreign and terrifying. Henry (Jason Clarke), on the other hand, who unbeknownst to Laura purchases the farm in the beginning of the film, forces his insecurities on Laura and tries to fit his dream of living on and tending to a farm into the course of their relationship without common understanding or negotiation. His either clear disregard or ignorance of Laura’s unhappiness strains further their already withering marriage, which held together only by the strings of familial duty and the needs of their two daughters is worn even further by Laura’s muted desire for Jamie, Henry’s brother.
Perhaps the only character exempt from this anger is Florence Jackson. Mary J. Blige’s portrayal as the mother of the Jackson family and the McAllen family, for whom she works as a caretaker, is riveting. She doesn’t have her Oscar-worthy-drama moment, for lack of a better term, but she doesn’t need one. Her seamless ability to assert her presence in every scene, no matter the amount of dialogue she has, is unsurpassed and gorgeous.
As seen through Blige, Mudbound is most notably emblazoned with sweeping performances across the cast, all of whom seize the voiceless discomfort between these two families with a silencing beauty. Mitchell is a flawlessly crafted Ronsel, and with Hedlund as his counterpart, these two actors create the most memorable scenes of the film. Mulligan’s Laura is lonely and solemn, and though a symbol of domestic enchantment, she is undoubtedly firm and intelligent, unwavering in her understated and necessary strength.
The one flaw in this film is the extensive narration. Understandably salient in a film with so many characters, this element just fits. Though bit tedious at times, if you really listen to what these characters say, (for what they all say is imperative to the narrative) the narration works. That aside, Mudbound is undoubtedly one of the best of 2017, standing firm as an achievement in unparalleled storytelling with graceful performances. In a world where violence and hate are the foundation upon which these characters stand, the emotion that exudes from each of them is a testament to Rees’ deft hand and to the film’s inimitable power.