Mudbound is many things at once: A demonstration of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a portrait of racial tensions in rural America, and a universal telling of everyday people trying to live through the trials of today to build a better tomorrow. Yet the film is one thing as well: Poetic. Despite its heavy subject matter, it is captivating to watch from the very first frame to the last.
Mudbound deals with a couple trying to raise a family down in rural Mississippi, Laura and Henry McAllan (Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke). As they try to keep their family running, they buy a piece of farmland that Florence and Hap Jackson (Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan) have worked on as sharecroppers for years. Meanwhile, two soldiers from the different families: Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), come home to work on the farm while dealing with problems of their own. Jamie is battling PTSD and alcoholism while Ronsel deals with racists in the community he lives in. One of them includes the patriarch of the McAllan family, Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks).
One reason that this film is so poetic is the expressive, nearly wordless faces from the amazing actors. If there is anyone that stands out amongst this incredible ensemble, it’s Garrett Hedlund who blends charming, all-American machismo with raw, emotional weight with his portrayal of the traumatized Jamie. Jason Mitchell, who previously wowed audiences with his breakout turn as Easy E in Straight Outta Compton, is a stand out as well with his portrayal of Ronsel Jackson that is earnest with subtle layers of frustration and skepticism.
Meanwhile, Carey Mulligan is the best she’s been since Shame as Laura, a sheltered suburbanite who slowly transitions into a sharp tiger mom willing to stick her feet in the dirty mud of the countryside. Also, Mary J. Blige is a subtle revelation, portraying Florence Jackson as a figure of grace and subtle authority, while Rob Morgan manages to be the film’s unsung hero as Florence’s loving husband Pap. Even if Jonathan Banks plays a typical racist Southerner, he still gives his character dimensions, channeling his arrogance through astute observations. If there was any justice in this world, Mudbound would be a frontrunner to win Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Besides the expressive faces of the actors, the characters are able to come to life thanks to the voiceover narrations in the screenplay that give them agency and allow them to express their thoughts they may not be able to say out loud. Also, aside from Pappy McAllan, none of the main characters are necessarily good or evil. Laura and Henry are close-minded individuals but they’re still trying to keep their heads afloat despite buying someone’s land by doing so. Even if Florence and Hap end up serving the McAllans, they’re still doing it to serve themselves so that their family can get by.
The fact that this is a film about common people trying to get by is what allows it to stand out from other films dealing with racism. Typically, films that deal with the subject matter focus on the vantage point of an archetypal white savior fighting against villainous racists. But here, there is no white savior. Even if the character of Jamie forms a bond with Ronsel, it is mainly because they understand each other’s trauma after fighting in the war. Ronsel does question why Jamie is so kind at first because he is a part of the prejudiced family who bought his family’s land. But he realizes that he’s just a lost soul trying to battle his personal demons.
Seeing these characters try to stick their hands and feet in the mud to fight through another day makes the film a difficult watch. But cinematographer Rachel Morrison shoots it beautifully like it’s a moving painting and uses semi-long tracking shots when focused on the faces of the actors to enhance their portrayals. Credit should also go to editor Mako Kamitsuna for knowing when to cut away from the long tracking shots at the right moments in order to keep the nearly 2-hour film running at a smooth but steady pace.
Mudbound may not be the most entertaining film to watch but it still is essential viewing with breathtaking cinematography, a committed acting ensemble, and a screenplay with precise exposition. All of which are brilliantly orchestrated by director Dee Rees who has created a historical portrait that depicts the ongoing universal struggle of making a better future.