Mudbound’s title couldn’t be any clearer: One way or another, we’ll all end up in the mud eventually. Centering on two families living and farming in the Mississippi Delta, Dee Rees’ movie is the first truly great ensemble film since Good Night and Good Luck.
The first family is the McAllans. Henry (Jason Clarke) is a former engineer who has brought his family to a farm to live off of the land (whether they like it or not). His wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan in a career-best performance); father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks); and brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), join him and meet the Jacksons. Living on the farm as tenant farmers for years, Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), Florence (Mary J. Blige in a performance where you’ll barely recognize her) and Ronsel are always negotiating their independence with the whims of white folk.
Set in the 1940s, during and following World War 2, Mudbound relies on different aspects of the American mythology for black families and white families. Henry, an educated and reasonably affluent man, believes in the Jeffersonian America of self-sufficient farmers. Laura believes in being the ideal wife and mother, pleasure and attraction be damned. Jamie believed that the military would be his key to emancipation from the shadow of his father.
Ronsel wants a very different kind of emancipation from the same military service. After falling in love with a German woman during the war, he returns to racists that demand he enter and exit the general store through the back door. Hap believes that working hard and saving money and, most importantly, not subjecting himself to the desires of his employers will save his dignity as the descendant of slaves.
Rees’ exploration of this period is near revolutionary. It has a compassion for all of its characters (well, minus Pappy and the other Klan types) that draws you into every emotionally charged interaction. The performances are second to none this year, and if the Screen Actors Guild does not recognize it as an extraordinary ensemble piece, they are sorely mistaken.
When Oscar time comes around, this will be the big prestige film about racism of 2017 and if it and Get Out are left out of the running come January, it will be as big a disappointment as Selma and the #OscarSoWhite issues of previous years.
Mudbound is one of the best movies of the year and, although it will be released both in theatres and on Netflix in November, find one in your local theater. The cinematography and sound design need to be experienced on a big screen in a good theater. Pundits always talk about the need for holding up and supporting great original filmmaking, and Mudbound is just that; we need to celebrate it, now.