Movies

Review: Two Southern families bound by war and prejudice in Dee Rees’ magnificent ensemble drama ‘Mudbound’

Two men return home from World War II to work on a farm, where they struggle to deal with racism and adjusting to life after war in “Mudbound.” Video by Jason H. Neubert
Film Critic

The camera rarely sits still in “Mudbound,” a sweeping epic of racial discord set during the 1940s, when Jim Crow held sway in the American South and Hitler loomed over Europe. At times the movie, directed with striking verve and sensitivity by Dee Rees, shuttles back and forth across the Atlantic, contrasting one war zone with another. But mostly it burrows deep into the soil of the Mississippi Delta, a harsh, unyielding landscape of blinding sun, pounding rain and, yes, acres of mud.

Rees has an eye for the grubby poetic details — a possum lying dead in the dirt, a week’s worth of grime being scrubbed from a woman’s shoulders — but she doesn’t linger on them so much as catch them on the fly, keeping the frame in gentle, insistent motion.

A wobbly camera can tilt all too lazily into cliche, but here the work of the cinematographer Rachel Morrison suggests a deeper instability. The world we see may be grounded in sweaty, dusty reality, but it is also thrillingly and disturbingly in flux.

Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 debut novel, “Mudbound” is the story of two families, one black and one white, both toiling on the same dismal stretch of farmland. We first encounter it through the eyes of a white woman named Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), who gave up her comfortable Memphis existence to live in a cramped Mississippi farmhouse with her sturdy but naive husband, Henry (Jason Clarke).

But the story really takes root only after we meet the Jacksons, a family of black sharecroppers led by a hard-working, God-fearing patriarch, Hap (Rob Morgan), and his resilient wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige, purging every trace of pop glamour in a revelatory performance).

In entwining the families’ fortunes and travails, Rees has made her most sprawling and ambitious picture to date, far outpacing “Pariah” (2011), her semi-autobiographical drama about a black lesbian teenager, or “Bessie” (2015), her Emmy-winning HBO movie starring Queen Latifah as the blues performer Bessie Smith. But the scope and complexity of “Mudbound” go far beyond its muscular war scenes, its vivid period trappings and its fleet but generous running time.

To a degree that is both formally impressive and politically astute, Rees and her co-writer, Virgil Williams, have largely retained the symphonic, almost Faulknerian structure of multiple narrators that governed Jordan’s story. The radicalism of “Mudbound” thus lies in its inherently democratic sensibility, its humble, unapologetic insistence on granting its black and white characters the same moral and dramatic weight.

In a film industry that has only begun to correct its default position of presenting black suffering almost exclusively through a white gaze, this is no small achievement.

And so while “Mudbound” may feel a bit unwieldy at first, it could scarcely be more clear-eyed, and it snaps into focus in no time. With the exception of Henry’s despicably racist father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks, dead-eyed perfection), who spends most of the movie sneering at Laura and hurling epithets in the Jacksons’ direction, Rees has a remarkable gift for seeing her characters whole.

She throws a spotlight on each one in turn, holding aloft their dreams and disappointments with a touch that is somehow both generous and unsparing, and she lets their voices ring out across a canvas packed with enough births, deaths, departures, reunions and conflicts to fill a season’s worth of episodic television.

We are made privy to Laura’s devotion as a wife and mother but also her flickering attraction to Henry’s handsome, sensitive younger brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). And we hear Florence give voice to her longings and frustrations, such as the time she must forgo her own family’s needs to nurse Laura’s sick children back to health (which lands her a permanent job as their housekeeper).

That may sound like a minor inconvenience, but “Mudbound” knows that no inconvenience is minor when crops are scarce and money is even scarcer, when a spilled bucket of milk or an unexpected injury can set a family on the road to ruin.

We also hear from the brash, bighearted Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), the eldest of the Jackson children, who fills his parents with apprehension and pride when he marches off to war. Before long Ronsel is fighting in Germany with the predominantly black 761st Tank Battalion, while the equally headstrong Jamie joins the attack from the air as a fighter pilot. We watch both men endure loss and torment in the heat of battle, in scenes cut together with a quick, visceral bluntness that belies the movie’s larger thematic purpose.

War is, in a sense, the great equalizer; the military may be segregated but death isn’t especially discriminating. And when the two veterans return to Mississippi, barely aware of each other but bound by their trauma, “Mudbound” stirs to a deeper kind of life.

The friendship that develops between Ronsel and Jamie — wonderfully played by Mitchell and Hedlund in laid-back conversations that you never want to see end — could scarcely seem more intuitive to our eyes and ears, even as it defies every social norm of their era.

Outwardly, the two men are on different sides of a great racial divide that stems not only from personal animus (though there is plenty of that to go around), but also from an entrenched system of social, psychological and economic oppression.

On a deeper level, they are bound by their wartime memories and troubled by a vague, unarticulated nostalgia. It’s not that they yearn for the horrors of combat, but rather that the extraordinary upheaval they witnessed overseas gave their actions gravity and purpose, in stark contrast to the stagnation and small-mindedness of life in the Delta.

The men’s bond quickly ignites a dramatic fuse that leads to a ghastly, nightmarish reckoning, followed by a brief but haunting intimation of grace — a reminder that the arc of the moral universe does ultimately bend toward justice, however slowly. But if the final scenes play out with a simplicity and inevitability that speaks to the sure-footedness of the storytelling, the underlying motivations remain irreducibly complex.

You sense that there is little here that escapes Rees’ notice; rather than present us with a simplistic equation of good and evil, she invites us to see the nuances in every injustice, and to see the injustice in every kind of domination. You sense the tension simmering beneath Hap’s reflexive obedience to the gruff, entitled Henry, who doubtless believes that his superior manners make him less of a racist than Pappy. You may also note that Florence, despite her lowly station, commands more authority and respect in her household than Laura does in hers.

A panorama this vast and varied deserves the grandeur of the big screen, just as a drama this resonant in an era of Black Lives Matter rallies and white-nationalist marches demands to be discussed afterward in a crowded theater lobby. But “Mudbound,” after showing to great acclaim at the Sundance, Toronto, New York and AFI film festivals, is a Netflix production, and while its 17-theater nationwide release is a generous allotment by company standards, it’s a shame that a movie this aesthetically, historically and politically rich will have to shrink itself to the dimensions of the world’s TV and computer screens.

I mention all this not to diminish Rees’ achievement, but rather to celebrate it and set it apart. She has given us an enormous vision in an industry that has become far too content to sell us small ones.

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‘Mudbound’

Rating: R, for some disturbing violence, brief language and nudity

Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes

Playing: The Landmark, West L.A.; Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Noho 7, North Hollywood; iPic Theaters, Pasadena; also streaming on Netflix

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justin.chang@latimes.com

@JustinCChang