Post war epic on boggy ground
It pours with rain at the start of Dee Rees’ Mudbound and, despite occasional sunshine, lowering clouds and another downpour are never far away. The mud in the title is a physical reality, but comes to represent something more. In that opening scene, brothers Henry (Jason Clarke) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) are soaking wet as they bury their father and have to ask for help from a black family, who are apparently leaving the area. And it’s very apparent that there’s history – bad history – between them.
The explanation follows swiftly in what is essentially a film of two halves. How Henry met and courted his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and how they moved from the city to a farm being worked by the black family, the Jacksons – they scratched a living from the land but could never own it. The turning point is America’s involvement in World War II and after the family saga comes the meat of the story, focusing on Jamie and the Jackson’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) as the two return from serving their country. Jamie was a pilot, Ronsel was in the army, where he experienced both prejudice and equality. Their experiences and subsequent PTSD is the basis for a strong friendship, one that’s regarded with hostility by Jamie’s racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks) and the community in general. And it’s one that ultimately leads to tragedy.
The film depicts a rural Mississippi that is bogged down, but not just by the ever present, super glue mud. History and tradition have the same effect. Pappy reflects the way attitudes, especially to the black community, are stuck in the past: even when Ronsel returns from the war, he finds segregation is still prevalent: there are separate seats for whites and blacks on the bus, separate water fountains and he’s forced to leave the general store by the back door rather than the front. Most sinister of all, the Klan is still a force to be reckoned with. It’s a place that isn’t just stuck in the past, it’s reluctant to leave it.
The film suffers, though, from its many narratives, some of which don’t lead anywhere much. Equally, there are so many characters that there’s nobody specific to focus on, no lead as such and, most perplexing of all, is the multitude of narrators. One or two would have been fine, but they change frequently and it’s not always clear whose version of events we’re listening to. It all serves to reinforce a sense of the film being constrained by the original novel. Bookbound, rather than mudbound, if you like.
But the ensemble cast, and some individual performances in particular, is impressive. Hedlund and Mitchell give heartfelt performances as the returning soldiers with their respective problems and difficulty in settling back into civilian life in a society that’s no longer relevant to them. And Mary J Blige embues Florence, Ronsel’s mother, with strength, compassion and more than a touch of anger.
The lack of a character for the audience to invest in makes for a serious shortcoming, but it doesn’t prevent Mudbound from being a thought-provoking experience. It’s set just 70 years ago but, in terms of the attitudes depicted on the screen, it feels a whole lot longer. And yet it’s also much more contemporary than you might expect.
Mudbound is released on Netflix and in Curzon cinemas on Friday, 17 November.