New to Netflix, Mudbound reinvents the World War Two movie, attacking the issue from an often overlooked perspective
Recently added to Netflix, Mudbound must be the most affecting film of the year. It is unapologetic, brutal, and confrontational, yet with many moments of joy; it is an emotional juggernaut.
Writer and director Dee Rees adapts Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel, following two families on a farm through World War Two and the years either side. The McAllans and the Jacksons embody the racial divisions in America before the Civil Rights Movement, but when a friendship forms between Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), two soldiers suffering on their return, everybody in the town objects.
From the first scene, it is revealed that Jamie and brother Henry (Jason Clarke) are burying their father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), and a tragedy has affected them and the neighbouring black family, the Jacksons. Henry’s refusal to bury their father by a slave, Jamie’s fear of his brother leaving him to drown in the grave, and the tense Hap Jackson, played impressively by Rob Morgan, all allude to the prior events which form the rest of the film.
“Ain’t my fault what happened.” Mississippi local Henry claims to his wife Laura (the brilliant Carey Mulligan). By starting this way and then returning to the origin, the first half of the film is a setup of the finest construction with recognisable foreshadowing. Nevertheless, the ruthless nature and violence of the final act is such that the events are shocking to see and rightly so.
The story telling devices used are accomplished, especially considering Rees has only one minor feature, a TV movie, and an episode of Empire to her name. Her filmmaking ability shines with a quality production and acting team beside her.
The lack of diversity in the film industry has been a longstanding issue and Netflix is undeniably providing more of a platform than the Hollywood rearguard, who desperately need to relent to the many talented non-white actors, writers, directors, and producers. Too often, the industry repeats the casting call for white, macho World War Two action films, yet here is a film from that period featuring top level performances on and off the screen from a white, black, male, female cast and crew with action, drama, romance, and tragedy. It is incredibly ambitious, but there is room for everything, and the Netflix catalogue is richer for it.
No one character in this film is hailed the hero. Everyone here has tragic flaws, from Jamie’s drunken arrogance to the universally maternal nature of Florence Jackson (a transformed Mary J Blige), and they collide catastrophically. The generational monstrosity of the older Pappy and his upkeep of systemic racism and the KKK in the community is constant, and the friendship between Jamie and Ronsel is enjoyable, but Hap Jackson has the most compelling arc, closely followed by Laura McAllan.
Laura comes from a well-to-do family, yet still describes her husband as a “rescuer” from “a life in the margins”. The two inequalities, race and gender, are the prevalent themes in that order, and Laura stops still in the open bathtub in fear of the wandering Pappy. The complexity and truthfulness of the film is epitomised by her earlier resistance in keeping her beloved piano when they move to the farm, providing care for the Jacksons, and then her later embrace of sexuality, all narrated by her reflective, dissatisfied voice. Mulligan is a wonder.
The early life of the McAllans at parties and dinners contrasts the plight of Hap Jackson and his family. While Henry McAllan’s foolishness leads them to the muck of the farm, Hap has no choice, previous Jacksons having “worked all their lives on this land never to own it”. His general faith and optimism in his daughter becoming the first coloured stenographer is moving, but does not last. Morgan delivers the many following, anguishing moments with astounding control, as the dream of land gets closer, than further away due to a unlucky injury, the weather, and, of course, the demands of landowners, the McAllans.
Mudbound is an important and impacting film, and has a depth of talent and style telling a too often untold perspective of the WWII period in America.