There’s no earthly reason that a 1940s-set drama about two families working the land in dirt-poor Mississippi should be one of the more resounding and topical movies of 2017, but it’s frightening how relevant Mudbound is. Director Dee Rees (HBO’s Bessie) has created a masterclass on the topic of race relations and prejudice that, sadly, could have been set in virtually any decade and been just as powerful.
Mudbound opens with brothers Henry (Jason Clarke) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) digging a grave for their father’s coffin in a driving rainstorm. Within barely a minute Rees has already set the scene for the film; you know it’s going to be as dirty and messy literally as it will be thematically. And the following morning, when the brothers ask a passing black farmer named Hap (Rob Jackson) for help in lowering the coffin into the ground, the look on Hap’s face tells you instantly there’s bad blood between them. Consider yourself hooked.
Mudbound then flashes back to 1939 in Memphis, as Henry meets Laura (Carey Mulligan) at her parents’ home. They marry and start a family, but shortly after the war begins, Henry moves them, along with his racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks), down to Mississippi to live on a farm he purchased. When they arrive Henry discovers he was swindled by the landowner, leaving them with no option but to move into a tenant shack down the road from Hap, his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their children, all of whom work the farm.
Laura is instantly miserable, not only at being shacked up with her abhorrent father-in-law but also at the meager living conditions—no running water, no electricity, and a lone access road that floods everytime it rains. Meanwhile her brother-in-law Jamie has enlisted and is serving as a bomber pilot, and Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) is shipped off to Western Front.
Rees beautifully intertwines all the characters and their stories, relying on each of the main characters as part-time narrator to guide us through the events. Her exquisite, epic script, co-written by Virgil Williams from Hillary Jordan’s award-winning 2008 novel, is a thing of both staggering beauty and building terror. Feeling like a tinderbox waiting for a stray spark, Mudbound has a sinister undercurrent running through it, propelling the action forward even as you sit there hoping the film never arrives at its inevitable climax.
Not only is Rees’ work behind the camera enough to immediately make you want to research her back catalog, she deftly directs the cast, keeping Mudbound from becoming the preachy, ham-fisted morality tale it could have devolved into. Speaking of the cast, there’s not a weak link to be found; Mitchell and Hedlund emerge as the leads, anchoring the film with heart and restraint, while Jackson, Blige, and Mulligan also turn in superb performances.
Reminiscent of fact-based films such as Mississippi Burning, Fruitvale Station, and this year’s Detroit, Mudbound may be fictional, but there’s not a second of it that doesn’t ring horribly true, particularly in the current racial climate. It’s a hell of a movie, and it packs an unapologetic wallop. It may not be easy to watch, but one could make the case that it should become required viewing, and not just in film schools.