There are a half dozen or so main characters in Dee Rees’ devastating, festival-tested epic about race, poverty, and the war being fought at home and abroad in rural Mississippi in the ’40s. So it seems like a small miracle that by the end of the film, you feel as though you’ve lived inside all of their heads, felt inside all of their hearts, and walked in their shoes. I’m not quite sure how Rees (2011’s Pariah) has done it, exactly, but the depth of heartbreak and humanity in this — just her second feature film — is remarkable.
Although based on a 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound feels like a long-lost Faulkner story. You understand the dreams and desires of these characters, and the dirt under their fingernails. The film interweaves the stories of two families (one white, one black) working the same cursed patch of land as landowner and tenant farmer: the McAllans (Jason Clarke, Garrett Hedlund, Carey Mulligan, Jonathan Banks) and the Jacksons (Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan). The two families are more dependent on each other than the times will let them openly admit. The closest bond comes between Hedlund’s Jamie and Mitchell’s Ronsel, both of whom have returned from fighting in WWII with deep emotional scars (both actors are outstanding).
Telling stories about race is never easy. There’s so much baggage, so many charged emotions, it’s so easy to make a wrong step. But Mudbound is never preachy, reductive, or undercut by its own good intentions. Just the opposite. It’s a deeply felt American tale told with heart and humanity. A-