Mudbound

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Dee Rees

Starring

Carey Mulligan Garrett Hedlund Jason Mitchell

Anticipation.

Director Dee Rees made big waves with her 2011 feature debut Pariah.

Enjoyment.

The filmmaking here is a thing of consummate beauty.

In Retrospect.

A slow and brutal burn, but worth it for the devastating finale.

Two men return from war only to be confronted by racism in Dee Rees’ vital and sprawling American epic.

The expansive scope of Dee Rees’ third feature, Mudbound, is a spectacle to behold and cherish. It offers burning proof that cinema can be employed to capture the grand sweep of history and the slow, grinding tectonic plates of “progress” without the aid of swelling budgets, intricate special effects and armies of extras. This pulverisingly sad historical saga is ripped from the pages of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel which centres on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta throughout the 1940s, dividing its objective eye almost 50/50 between the upwardly mobile white landowners and the dirt-poor black household who live on and work the fields.

From the outset, Rees’ coolly majestic film displays all the trappings of a handsome prestige picture purpose built for the awards set, though it’s not long before a deeper, more lyrical work blossoms. As its story develops, we are allowed access to the inner monologue of most of the key players. These aren’t direct portals into the mind that offer instant emotional insight, more literary musings on life, the world, religion, family, economics and conflict. The wistful poetics of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven instantly spring to mind as a transcendental touchstone.

Brothers Henry and Jamie McAllan (Jason Clarke and Garrett Hedlund) are seen digging a pit in the driving rain. They discover a skull in the ground, and Henry says they have to start again, as his father can’t be buried near a slave grave. Henry’s wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) enters the fray, and everyone looks nervous and a little contrite. Black farmer Hap (Rob Morgan) and his family trundle by in a cart, and he sends an icy glare to Henry when asked to help lower the coffin into the ground. The film flashes back to build out the earth-shattering context for this strange, awkward set-to.

The Jim Crow south remains a hotbed of persecution and hatred, and it transpires that the McAllans find themselves split between the attitudes of Henry’s hardcore racist pappy (Jonathan Banks) and a desire to transcend this antiquated and evil system of oppression. The Jackson clan do their best to keep their heads down. They make sure that their cordial relationship with the McAllans never develops into something that may eventually cause them harm.

Mary J Blige is extraordinary (and unrecognisable) as Florence Jackson, the only character able to see the shifting of cultural sands. She speaks in muted, husky tones, perhaps knowing that darkness lurks ahead. Her stripped-back performance is spellbinding, as she imbues the stock “strong” matriarch character with a persistent sense of helplessness and suppressed longing.

Mudbound feels unique in its drive to place issues of race against a broader backdrop of global historical events. Jamie and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) head to Europe to fight the war, and even though they come back changed men, they find a country that has been preserved in sticky, opaque amber. They witnessed blood being spilled in the name of freedom, and can’t comprehend why the fervour to preserve a society fuelled by compassion rather than contempt doesn’t yet exist at home. Rees works the material slow, hard and long, and so it’s only when you reach the closing chapter that her brilliant MO is fully realised.

Published 17 Nov 2017

Tags: Carey Mulligan Dee Rees Garrett Hedlund Jason Mitchell

Anticipation.

Director Dee Rees made big waves with her 2011 feature debut Pariah.

Enjoyment.

The filmmaking here is a thing of consummate beauty.

In Retrospect.

A slow and brutal burn, but worth it for the devastating finale.

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