Even if you somehow manage to walk away unenthused by the Sundance Film Festival premiere Mudbound, there’s no conceivable way to be unimpressed by it. The task that sophomore filmmaker Dee Rees shoulders in adapting Hillary Jordan’s like-named novel is no mean feat, nor is the vivid communication of themes that much of the world seems bent on turning a blind eye to. Sure enough, such a trying endeavor reaps no shortage of hiccups. Slow stretches and film-unfriendly monologues pepper Rees’ picture as she unravels a yarn about two families, one white and one black, sharing a patch of land in a merciless 1940s Mississippi. But none of Mudbound’s flaws is too fatal to distract from the ultimate rewards of its ostensible mission: to tell a story, even if set 70-odd years back, illustrates the American racial divide as it persists today.
Where Mudbound shines most stunningly is in the nuance of its characters. While we’ve all seen our share of “racism movies” that rely on easy archetypes to sell bold distinctions between good and evil, Mudbound sprinkles its central players across an ideological spectrum. We see this in the McAllans, an extended family of white landowners whose collected members represent a wide range of moral fiber. On one end is patriarch Pappy (Jonathan Banks), who wears his hate like a badge of honor; on the other is World War II veteran Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), who eagerly flaunts his friendship with black fellow soldier Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) in front of his racist dad.
More interesting material comes from those who occupy the middle ground. Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), to whom we’re warned from the get-go as an intellectual, a family man, and a prospector of the American dream, is pathologically indebted to the systematic alienation of black from white. He and his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) exhibit not the hostility of Pappy nor the relative progressivism of Jamie, but the complacency that makes the normalization of the latter such an impossibility. In delivering so much of the film by way of Henry and Laura’s perspectives, Rees manages the tall order of articulating just how would-be ordinary people could so easily enable such sociological atrocity.
Perspective doesn’t stick exclusively with the McAllans, however. We spend the other half of the film looking at the world through the eyes of the Jacksons, a farmhand family employed by the enterprising Henry. Not satisfied to confine any of her characters to the margins of victimhood, Rees takes great effort to show father Hap (Rob Morgan) and mother Florence's (Mary J. Blige) own psychological submissions to the system at hand, unraveling their own ideologies with particular insight.
Of course, the focal member of the Jackson family unit is the aforementioned eldest son, the bright-eyed and strong-willed Ronsel, whom we see earn his brass as a war hero only to return home to a world of disgust and derision. After an hour and change devoted to introducing and deconstructing each of the major players, the second half of Mudbound homes its efforts on a budding friendship between the PTSD-stricken Jamie and the newly confident Ronsel. Perhaps the best, if not only the brightest, element to the film, the pair's charming relationship may outshine a wealth of the material to have come before. With so much on its plate—Mudbound takes care in illustrating the individual relationships between brothers Henry and Jamie, Henry and his wife Laura, yearning in-laws Laura and Jamie, Henry and Hap, Pappy and Jamie, Florence and Ronsel, et al...—no one faction is given as much time to flourish as it really deserves. This borders on unfortunate, though keeps our appetites consistently whetted.
This contradiction may spell out just how effectively Mudbound compromises its pros with its cons. It may take too long to arrive at some of its finer points, but the wait always seems retroactively worth it once we arrive at the good stuff. Sure enough, it's worth wading through some hazy backstory about the McAllans' broken marriage if it brings us to the Jackson family's troubled navigation of 1940s America. She may hit a few slip-ups en route, but eventually, Rees finds success in most everything she aims to accomplish. And these are no paltry deeds, either.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Images: Sundance Institute