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Review: Mudbound (2017)

Mudbound (2017)

Directed by: Dee Rees

Premise: Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan. Set in the World War II era, two families, one white and the other black, farm in Mississippi. A member of each family goes off to war and then returns and struggles to adjust to civilian life.

What Works: Mudbound is a well-made period piece with a complex web of well-drawn characters. The story concerns the intertwined fates of two families. The McAllans are a white family who move from the city to the country to take up farming and buy up the property worked by the Jacksons, a black family of sharecroppers. Mudbound is exceptionally well shot by cinematographer Rachel Morrison. The movie is frequently beautiful but also captures the harshness of rural life and both the beauty and the ruggedness exist together. The film also has an interesting relationship between these families. At the time in which Mudbound takes place, slavery has been over for a couple of generations but the residual effects of it remain and that’s evident in the way the two families relate to one another. When the United States enters World War II, the eldest son of the Jacksons and the brother of the McAllans go off to war. The movie has parallel action with both of these men in combat and their families worry about them while they are away. That is one of the outstanding qualities of Mudbound. The film includes multiple perspectives conveyed through voice over by several different characters. This allows the audience to experience the events from several different points of view but it also contrasts the white and black experience. When the two men return from the war, their shared experience bonds them together in ways that highlight the contrasts between their families. Mudbound makes especially good use of the frame narrative. This is a common feature in historical storytelling but it is used well here because it sets up the audiences’ impressions and then changes our understanding of the scene when the narrative catches up. Mudbound also has a terrific cast including Carey Mulligan as the wife of the McAllan family and Garrett Hedlund as the brother. Jonathan Banks is cast as the viciously racist grandfather of the McAllan family and Banks throws himself into the role. Also impressive are Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan as the Jacksons and Jason Mitchell as their son.

What Doesn’t: Some of the drama of Mudbound is soap opera-esque. It is as though some of the characters go out of their way to create conflict and the movie handles issues overtly, especially between Garrett Hedlund and Carey Mulligan’s characters, that might have been more effective with a lighter touch. Jason Clarke is the least compelling member of the cast. Some of the problem is Clarke’s performance and some of it is in the scripting. His character just isn’t there and the farm owner doesn’t have a vibrant internal life the way that everyone else does. Clarke’s character drags his family from their comfortable urban home to the middle of rural Mississippi but it’s never clear why he does this. We’re told he has a dream of being a farmer but his desires remain vague. It’s inferred that the character is naïve or an idiot but neither Clarke nor the filmmakers ever substantiate that on screen.

DVD extras: Available on Netflix.   

Bottom Line: Mudbound is a well told story with complex characters. The film brings its historical period to life with a vibrant sense of authenticity and incorporates multiple perspectives in a way that is very impressive.

Episode: #687 (February 25, 2018)