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Mudbound

MUDBOUND

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Dee Rees

Cast: Jason Clarke, Garrett Hedlund, Carey Mulligan, Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jonathan Banks 

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

Running Time: 2:14

Release Date: 11/17/17 (limited; Netflix)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 16, 2017

Two brothers must take to the painstaking task of burying their recently deceased father. They dig and dig, taking turns, although one of the brothers seems more zealous to do the work than the other. The rain begins to fall, and still, the digging must continue.

The shovel strikes something with clink of metal hitting metal. One of the brothers pulls up a shackle and, beneath it, some bones. There is already a grave here—unmarked as it would be for its occupants. It's the final resting place of some slaves, unceremoniously dumped into a hole in the ground, with bullet wounds apparent in their skulls.

This will not do, one of the brothers says. Their father never would have tolerated the idea of being buried with slaves. It will have to do, though, because the grave is dug, the rain is still falling, and the other brother wants this task to be finished.

It's a rather brief sequence that opens Mudbound, but it's one that reveals a lot about the story's characters and the film's thematic concerns. It's a story about family, and before even meeting the patriarch of this clan, we can tell that he is—to put it more kindly than he deserves—a controversial figure, even among his kin. We can surmise that both brothers knew their father well enough to assume that this spot, next to the bodies of slaves, would be his last choice for a final resting place.

One brother cares enough to point out that fact. The other could not give a damn less what his father would think of this grave and its current inhabitants: Just bury the old man, and be done with the job and him for good.

The act of digging the grave becomes the film's chief metaphorical concern. After its opening scene, Virgil Williams and director Dee Rees' screenplay proceeds to dig up the past of these characters and the story that led them to this moment. Just as with what the brothers found at the bottom of their hole, the past here is ugly, violent, and filled with an irrational hatred of others, simply because of the color of their skin. The story of the film is about a century or more removed from the foul history that the brothers dig up in the opening scene, but that history continues in its own way in this tale.

It's based on a novel by Hillary Jordan, and Williams and Rees maintain the scope of a years-long, multi-character, and period-specific story without sacrificing any of the depth that could come from it. The film is vast in its ambitions, giving us five major characters whose lives, motives, and hopes are of central concern. Rees spreads the film's focus to each of these characters, without thinning their unique narratives or overarching narrative of the story. That story covers a period before, during, and after World War II, primarily on a farm outside a small town in Mississippi, but also in combat and in times of unexpected peace in Europe.

Everyone and everything here help to define each other and every other aspect of the story. One could reduce the film's description with the label of melodrama, given the constant conflicts and ultimately tragic outcome of those conflicts, but that would be to ignore how much time Williams and Rees give to the internal lives of these characters, who, depending on their viewpoint, see this place as one of hope, one of despair, or one of centuries-old and still-going imprisonment.

The hope belongs to Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), who buys the farm to fulfill his lifelong dream. This comes as news to his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), a woman in her 30s who had no prospects of marrying a man until Henry came along. She never heard her husband speak of his dream, but she hasn't heard him speak of much since marrying him. With the kids and Henry's father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) in tow, Henry and Laura have to make a new homestead in the dilapidated farmhouse, after Henry discovers that he has been hoodwinked on a larger rental property.

There's another family: the Jacksons, who work as sharecroppers on Henry's newly bought land. Hap (Rob Morgan) sees it as a scheme—not much better than the days of his ancestors in Mississippi, save for the promise of one day owning a farm of his own. His grandfather once did, but it only brought him more pain than the land was worth. Hap figures he can do better, and with his loving wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) by his side, he just might.

Their eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) enlists into the military after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and so, too, does Henry's younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). The two men never meet overseas, but upon returning, they strike up a friendship. After leading tank charges in Patton's division and being treated as an equal in Europe, Ronsel has to reacquaint himself to the systematic racism of the Jim Crow South. Jamie has to cope with posttraumatic stress disorder and finds that a bottle of whiskey is the only medicine that works.

The reactions to Ronsel's newfound sense of self and this friendship are at the core of the story and how these we finally view these characters. Pappy, of course, is a racist through and through, scolding Ronsel for using the front door at the town's general store. Henry is more complicated. He's not an overt racist like his father, but he's of a mindset that it's better to go along in order to get along. There's something sinisterly naïve in that attitude, as well as the way he all but forces Hap into debt when a broken leg prevents the man from working his share of the fields.

The film becomes a study of prejudice in all its forms—from the directness of Pappy and his ilk, to the silent acceptance of the characters who either have other concerns or would rather not cause a problem, to this economic system that keeps the Jackson family in a sort of financial bondage. Mudbound is ambitious in its scope and rich in its attention to the inner struggles of, as well as the interpersonal conflicts between, these characters.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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