A grim resolve opens Dee Rees’ Mudbound. Gloomy skies pry above and a grave is dug below. ‘We’re not going to make it’ says a man to his brother, ‘We will. We have to’ comes the reply. By the time the pair discover a long-buried slave’s skeleton, a tone has been set and a direction established. What follows is something of a spiritual sequel to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, bolstered by terrific performance and a solemn morale which hits hard.
The film primarily concerns the developing lives of two American families in the thirties and forties and the parallel lives they lead, either side of the fracture of race. Laura (Carey Mulligan) is 31, a virgin and living with her parents when her brother’s boss, the too sturdy for romance Harry McAllan (Jason Clarke), shows up like a pebble in Laura’s pond existence, soon marrying her and starting a family. ‘My world was small,’ she says, and he was my rescuer from a life in the margins.’ Harry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is the more fly – he’s the one who’ll sweep a girl off her feet to dance; he’s also the one to answer when the war comes a calling.
Meanwhile, Harry relocates Laura, their two daughters, and his bigoted, venomously racist, father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) to Mississippi and the farm which he has spontaneously purchased. This is where the second, and black, family awaits, that is: Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and children. All they want for is to own their own land, the very land their ancestors worked on as slaves and they continue to as precious little more. When the war arrives, it is oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) that steps up.
The contrast of the the two families, and the comparative relativity of the struggles each face, carries the hallmarks of the story’s literary origins, being based on the book by Hillary Jordan. It is also an instantly stark reminder of the past and all too present; Rosa Parks won’t sit on her bus for another decade, with Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech another eight years on that. Except, things were different in war-torn Europe; there, among the ranks, race has less credence. On Ronsel’s return he finds himself missing the liberties he so briefly enjoyed. He laments: ‘Over there I was a liberator. People lined up in the streets waiting for us, throwing flowers and cheering, and here I’m just another nigger pushing a plough’. Jamie’s return to civility is no easier; he’s trauma stricken and at sea with his life and surroundings.
Produced on a independent budget, the scale and ambition of Mudbound is impressive, providing a beautifully visceral and earthy backdrop to excellent central performances. Rees pulls no punches, particularly with a harrowing final act that is dutifully difficult to watch, yet totally earned and necessary. Throughout the film, a brown palate from cinematographer Rachel Morrison is just one of many profound touches that assimilate the characters lives to the legacies of trench warfare from the Great War. The Second World War being a far more advanced conflict, it is a symbol of the frustration of society which has failed to move with the times.
Co-written with Virgil Williams, Rees script is beautiful, loaded with metaphor and dripping in poetic sentiment. Early on, Laura, in one of the film’s numerous narrational monologues from different characters, declares that she ‘dreamed in brown’ whilst, visually, recalling Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Florence Thompson. Intellectually superior to those around her, she too has been caged, bowing to the inherent superiority of the white, American male.
Mudbound balances on the boundary of art and realism with a delicacy and grace that enables the film to deliver its message in a fashion that never feels arch or unduly worthy. It is emotional and raw but a work of unfailing style.