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Sundance Film Review: ‘Mudbound’

Variety logo Variety 1/22/2017 Peter Debruge
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Some folks look out on the world, and all they see are the differences between people, the things that set us apart. “Mudbound” is a hymn to what we all share — the human struggle, the mutual desire to succeed and create a better world for our children — and it is a damning indictment of those who stand in the way of such progress. Set deep in the Mississippi Delta, it’s the epic story of two families, one white, the other black, who’ve each sown hope among fields too sodden to be much use — and though the sheer scope of the material overwhelms “Pariah” director Dee Rees at times, she finds shoots of optimism among the mire that couldn’t be more welcome at a moment when the country seems more divided than ever.

Adapted by Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams from Hillary Jordan’s remarkable debut novel, “Mudbound” captures more than the usual amount of detail from its source material, including much of the language itself. Rees preserves Jordan’s strategy of spreading the narration between six different characters, three from each family. It’s a powerful equalizing device that puts everyone on roughly the same level, despite the fact that the Jacksons are not only tenant farmers on the McAllans’ land, but African-American to boot, locking them into a lower social position in 1940s Mississippi.

“Mudbound” takes place at a particular time in American history, when poor white men felt their standing threatened by their hard-working black neighbors, when laws were passed to keep blacks down — or mudbound, if you will — and the Ku Klux Klan arose to enforce additional restrictions that never found their way into the books. So many of the contemporary stories set during that more shameful chapter of America’s past invent white role models who seem downright progressive by the standards of the day, and enlightened even by ours (à la Atticus Finch). But Jordan doesn’t let her characters off so easily. No, the white characters in “Mudbound” are products of their time, and there’s an honesty to that which sometimes supersedes choices that might otherwise have been more satisfying or dramatic — much as the casting favors actors whose weathered faces and strained expressions look as if they might have been lifted from Richard Avedon’s “In the American West” series.

And yet, there’s an earthy beauty to Carey Mulligan’s Laura McAllan, the most relatable character in the ensemble, despite the fact Laura herself accepts her domestic servitude with the same unquestioning devotion as the local sharecroppers do their work arrangements. Whereas everyone else is clawing their way up, Laura was raised with the comforts of the city, but marries Henry (Jason Clarke) on faith and follows her husband to a run-down house without electricity or running water, where baths are a once-a-week luxury.

There’s a glimmer of potential passion between Laura and Henry’s flirtatious younger brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), who builds his under-loved sister-in-law a shower in a caring gesture that never would have occurred to her husband, but that possibility is choked as surely a seed fallen among weeds. Jamie is by far the most charismatic of the McAllan clan, and the movie suffers when he ships off to war — though it gives the family’s venomous grandfather (Jonathan Banks) a chance to not-so-subtly establish himself as the ensemble’s resident bigot.

Living a short ways down the road, the Jackson family also sends one of its sons off to war, as Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) joins the all-black 761st Tank Batallion, leaving long-suffering Hap (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) to tend the cotton crop in his absence. On the front lines, Ronsel feels as if the color of his skin isn’t a factor for the first time, even sparking a romance with a nice white German lady that will come back to haunt him later.

Rees allows each of these characters to voice their innermost thoughts (all but Pappy, that is, though his venomous racism comes through loud and clear all the same), but avoids the Terrence Malick technique of pairing that narration with footage that might give the film its texture — which is not to say that such shots aren’t there. As Tamar-kali’s Dolby-mixed score swells all around, cinematographer Rachel Morrison supplies widescreen views of dramatic Mississippi sunsets, rain-drenched fields, and makeshift wooden houses that look ready to collapse in on themselves. But editor Mako Kamitsuna has so much material to wrestle in the film’s first hour that the priority must remain on the characters — plus, Rees is right not to romanticize the story’s setting or circumstances.

Farm life is hard, and not terribly compelling to depict, which makes it a challenge to dramatize the two families’ day-to-day trials. That might explain one of Rees’ more 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. Considering how important agriculture is to both families’ fates, however, “Mudbound” conspicuously lacks the hardy fight against the elements so brilliantly captured in films such as “The River” and “Places in the Heart,” where determined characters take a stand to save their crop.

The latter example actually delivers a more traditional dramatic treatment of many of “Mudbound’s” themes, right down to the stomach-churning appearance of a lynch mob in Klan robes at the end. Jordan’s novel provides a rich tapestry of events, but it doesn’t provide the clear-cut idea of what its main characters want from their struggle — apart from the chance to succeed and put down roots in soil they can call their own. Somehow, the movie seems to be missing a romance, or even a more developed sense of the impossibility of Jamie and Ronsel’s friendship, forged by a mutual respect among veterans but not allowed in the still-segregated American South.

When Jamie offers Ronsel a lift from town one afternoon, Ronsel 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. Jamie may treat Ronsel like an equal, but you can hear vestiges of his father’s racism in the way he asks Ronsel about his wartime conquests — he wants to know whether Ronsel ever slept with a white woman — and you can sense the fear in the deferential way that the Jacksons tread lightly whenever white men are present, making apologies even when they’re in the right.

Once awards season rolls around, it will be somebody’s job to identify which are the lead performances and which are supporting, but in the meantime, “Mudbound” presents a canvas on which all six of its narrators loom large. The male actors are strong, especially Mitchell and Hedlund, who wrestle the traumas of their wartime experience with a fresh set of battles on the home front, but it’s the two women who leave the strongest impression.

Blige so disappears into her role that audiences might never suspect they’re watching a pop star, were it not for the stylish pair of rimless sunglasses she wears when asked to help bury the man who all but murdered her son. Otherwise, she’s thoroughly convincing as a concerned mother, one who wants Ronsel to leave town and create his own opportunities, knowing full well it will make things more difficult for her and Hap. Mulligan shares Florence’s instinct for putting others’ good before her own, but takes a stand when Henry tries to throw out her piano, refusing to sacrifice the only shred of civilization they have left in Mississippi.

As such scenes make clear, “Mudbound” is a story about fighters, whether defending the country from Hitler or simply trying to put food and milk on the table. That’s something anyone can relate to, and yet, as the movie illustrates, when everyone’s crowded together on the bottom, it makes sense to stand up and fight together, not against one another — and Rees’ achievement comes in looking past what separates her characters and celebrating what they have in common.

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