Director: Dee Rees
Year of release: 2017
Running time: 2 hours 14 minutes
Epic in scope yet personal in intimate details, Mudbound tells the story of two families; one white, one black, in a way which feels both novelistic and cinematic. Covering a period of about five years, from America's entry into World War II to its immediate aftermath, Dee Ree's ambitiously mounted effort uses the literate inspiration (its based on a 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan) not as a curse, but as a means for delving into the innermost thoughts of its characters. The way the film uses multi-character narration becomes a daring way of giving voices to the voiceless; as these are people separated not only physically from their families, but emotionally as well.
From an aesthetic standpoint, Rees and her cinematographer Rachel Morrison have concocted a period look that not only gets the details right, but also the tactile sense of atmosphere. The scenery is littered with dilapidated shacks ruined by economic decline, long stretches of Mississippi farmland, and of course, that titular mud; which is caked on shoes, clothing, and faces throughout. From a character standpoint, Mudbound also succeeds because it allows multiple perspectives to be in conversation thematically, even if certain characters never share significant screen time together. Jason Clarke as a hard-bitten family man and Cary Mulligan as his put-upon wife are quite good here, but the two standout performances belong to Garret Hedlund as a dashing drunk scarred by his time in the war and Jason Mitchell as a young black man also sent out to battle. The post-war scenes between Mitchell and Hedlund are fascinating; for here are two men with nothing in common aside from the horrors of combat, but whose bond remains one-sided, since one still has white privilege upon his return while the other faces horrors of a different kind.
Mudbound tackles family bonds, racism, and socioeconomic concerns with the breadth, scope, and historical specificity rarely seen in American cinema. Meanwhile, the film's intense climax, which almost pushes things into the realm of pure exploitation, is nonetheless a searing indictment of the social hierarchy of 1940's America. Sadly, the current day parallels are apparent, and all the more tragic for it. In the end, Mudbound is a film about mourning the present with hopes for a better future; if only the entire structure of American racism could somehow be torn down.