Mudbound is a staggering work of art, and an engrossing story about the harsh realities of Jim Crow’s Mississippi. It is an emotional, unforgiving ride, a journey of two families – one white, one black – and the obligations and friendships and hatred that percolate in this hostile environment. The gauntlet has been thrown down for awards season, and for whatever it’s worth, Netflix has its first legitimate Best Picture contender.
Director Dee Rees’s film begins with a murder, a burial, and backs up from there. The narrative framing of Mudbound effectively adds a looming sense of dread to the story, as it picks up in the waning years of the Great Depression, right before America’s unplanned involvement in World War II when people in this country were gradually inching towards any semblance of prosperity. We meet, over a period of a few years, members of the McAllen family. There is the patriarch, Henry, played by Jason Clarke; there is his virginal wife, Laura, played by Carey Mulligan; and there is the younger, more free-spirited brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) who, when Pearl Harbor happens in the early minutes of the picture, ships off to war.
There is also Henry and Jamie’s father, Pappy, a villainous and vile old racist steeped in disgusting traditions of slavery and hate, played with a seething sneer and a menacing growl by Jonathan Banks. There won’t be a more frightening monster in the movies this year.
Henry makes the decision for the family that they will uproot from the city and move to a bleary-eyed farm in the middle of the Mississippi Delta. Things aren’t smooth early on, and this is where the McAllen’s meet The Jacksons, an African American family who’s lived and worked on this farm their entire lives. The father, Hap (Rob Morgan), is a noble man and a hard worker; his wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige), is a loving mother to their four children, the oldest of whom is Ronsell, played by Jason Mitchell.
Ronsell, like Jamie McAllen, is off fighting in World War II when the paths of the McAllen’s and Jacksons cross. While tension simmers between the two families – whether it’s Hap enduring the spittle-soaked anger of Pappy, or Henry’s own unwillingness to shed the racist DNA of his family tree – Jamie and Ronsell are becoming heroes; they’re becoming survivors. They are seeing The World in their battles, watching their friends die, and gaining a crucial bit of perspective that comes back with them, in different ways, when they return to Mississippi.
It’s best to not discuss the second half of Mudbound. As tensions mount, Rees and Virgil Williams story (based on the Hillary Jordan novel) reaches harrowing levels of violence and pain, before finding some level of comfort and catharsis in a final shot that is at once devastating and hopeful. The film is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the performances; everyone here is on top of their game, so much so it’s difficult to pinpoint any one actor. Clarke is reliable as always, and it’s refreshing seeing Carey Mulligan back after a curious absence these last few years.
The all-star of the first half is Rob Morgan, whose Hap finds himself in difficult situations time and time again, but Morgan shows Hap dig deep inside to find resolve. In the second half of the film, the focus shifts to Ronsell and Jamie, who are dealing with their war experiences in different ways. Both Mitchell and Hedlund are captivating, even if Hedlund is doing a pretty solid imitation of Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday. The screenplay sings with the mournful, poetic dialects of the early 20th century; it’s hard to believe this world existed only seventy years ago.
Netflix has been flirting with cinema’s awards season for a few years, and Mudbound might be their breakthrough film. It needs to be, because it’s one of the best films of 2017. They may have inched closer to acting nominations with last month’s The Meyerowitz Stories, but Rees’s movie belongs in the upper echelon of Best Picture hopefuls. Writing, directing, cinematography, at direction, they all deserve recognition here. Not that that justifies the merits of this film; it will stand on its own as an unforgettable experience either way.