“Mudbound” is the perfect example of a well-made, old-fashioned movie with every frame and everything in that frame taking its time and place to tell the story. It’s like—I imagine—how it would feel to be a page in a book being turned carefully by a caring and passionate reader.
Directed by Dee Rees from a script she and co-writer Virgil Williams adapted from Hillary Jordan’s debut novel, “Mudbound” is remarkable in its ability to let us see a world through the eyes of different people, where the differences are as crystal clear as the very things that bind them together. This story is set deep in the Mississippi Delta and it’s about two families, one white, the other African-American, who have tethered their very existence on the unforgiving fields.
The screenwriters allow most of the key characters to voice their innermost thoughts, and the
screenplay captures the necessary details about this time period, blending the language into a mixture that’s so very easy for us to digest. It’s not an easy job because the narration is told between six different characters, three from each family. This is powerful writing.
On one hand, this is a time in American history when poor white men felt their standing threatened by their hard-working African-American neighbors, and laws were passed to keep Blacks down—or mud-bound—and the cowardly Ku Klux Klan arose to enforce additional restrictions and to spread terror and unrest.
The women in “Mudbound” have the most sense and are far-and-away stronger than the men.
Carey Mulligan, who plays Laura McAllan, delivers a heartbreaking performance as a woman who accepts her domestic servitude with unquestioning devotion.
Enter the flirtatious younger brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), who builds his sister-in-law an outside shower, a gesture that never would have occurred to her husband. When he’s shipped off to war, we pine for him.
Just down the dusty road lives the Jackson family, who also send their son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), off to war where he joins the all-Black 761st Tank Batallion. Ronsel leaves his father, Hap (Rob Morgan), and his mother, Florence (Mary J. Blige), to tend the cotton crop in his absence. For the first time, on the front lines of war, Ronsel feels as if the color of his skin isn’t a factor. He even starts a love affair with a white German woman, an affair that will come back to haunt him later.
Life is hard at war. Life is hard on the farm. Rees makes that clear in her interesting structural choices when she cross-cuts between Ronsel dismounting from his tank in Europe and Hap falling off a ladder back in Mississippi, causing a gory injury that forces him to borrow a donkey, erasing any hope the Jacksons may have had of rising above their debts that season.
Eventually, both soldiers return home. Both lost and misunderstood. Despite that or perhaps because of it, Jamie and Ronsel do manage to forge a friendship that is based on mutual respect among veterans but not allowed in the still-segregated American South.
When Jamie offers Ronsel a lift from town one afternoon, he climbs into the back of the pickup truck, and later, when Jamie insists that he ride up front, Ronsel must duck anytime a car passes.
On the acting front, the male actors are strong, especially Mitchell and Hedlund. Mary J. Blige disappears into her role because she’s thoroughly convincing as a concerned mother.
“Mudbound” benefits greatly from a talented crew. The score is perfectly blended with cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s magnificent imagery. The editing—delivered by Mako Kamitsuna—is spot on!
Every frame and everything in the frame is telling a story; this allows for the dialogue in the screenplay to remain light. Rees and company have produced an old-fashioned movie.
Netflix released “Mudbound” on its streaming service Nov. 17.