Netflix’s Mudbound: A marvellous, weighty piece of cinema
James R | On 17, Nov 2017
Director: Dee Rees
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J Blige, Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund
Watch Mudbound online in the UK: Netflix UK
“Jamie saw things in a different way. When his eyes were on me, I felt like I wasn’t invisible.” That’s Laura (Carey Mulligan) in Mudbound, a superb, poignant portrait of race and prejudice in post-World War II America. Laura is the wife of Henry (Jason Clarke), who moves the family to the Mississippi Delta, where she has to give up everything she loves for a life on a farm. It’s a tough, grimy existence, one overseen by Pappy, Henry’s rude, redneck father.
Her hardships pale in comparison to those of the Jacksons, though, who try to make ends meet sharecropping on a plot of land on the farm. Hap (Rob Morgan) and his wife, Florence (Mary J Blige), face the same toil, but have to shoulder it on top of a society that discriminates, persecutes and exploits them.
This is weighty viewing, adapted with a rich, literary vein by Virgil Williams from Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name. And Fruitvale Station DoP Rachel Morrison frames it with a down-to-earth, natural grubbiness that unites its ensemble cast through the muddy brown of the landscape and the harsh realities of struggling in the rain.
The film adopts an admirable, classic Hollywood tone in its portrayal of this period corner of America, but it kicks into life with a profoundly modern spark when we’re re-introduced to Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), the brother of Henry, who returns from the war to family life. Dealing with the trauma of conflict, he’s a forever changed man, able to see past the petty prejudice of his family to recognise a fellow veteran soldier in Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), the son of Hap and Florence – a young man who escaped one type of prison on the battlefield, where African-American troops were segregated, only to end up back in another.
Morgan and Mary J Blige deliver consummate performances that contrast sorrowfully with the presence of Mulligan and Clarke’s white land owners, who are never condemned as products of their time, but never sympathised with either – far easier to be repulsed by is Pappy, played by Better Call Saul’s Jonathan Banks with a gravitas and venom that is genuinely sickening.
Hedlund and Mitchell, though, are the stars of the show, delivering nuanced snapshots of PTSD amid this wider tapestry of generational struggles, and it’s their relationship that becomes the soul of the movie – as they drive along, Ronsel hiding beneath the dashboard from white, prying eyes for fear of repercussions, their bond offers a glimpse of reconciliation and hope amid the bigotry and hatred. It’s a friendship that’s destined not to run smooth, a fact conveyed in so many tiny details. One scene sees the pair swap war stories in a barn, striking up a cigarette. Jamie throws a lighter to Ronsel, who fails to toss it back, and it clangs awkwardly out of Jamie’s reach.
If jumping between post-war horrors, family drama and racial commentary sounds like a lot of work for a film, you’d be right, but Ree, who co-wrote the screenplay, confident masters the shifting focus and themes. Embracing the film’s textual roots, she allows the movie’s perspective to glide subtly from character to character, offering narration not only to Laura but to Hap and Ronsel – giving voiceovers to people whose voices are taken away. The result is a marvellous, important piece of filmmaking; a sumptuous, worthy rallying cry for empathy that resonates with America now as much as then. Believe the talk of award nominations: period tales rarely feel so relevant.
Mudbound is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.