I felt anger almost immediately after the credits started rolling for Mudbound, though it was not due to the film’s quality. As of this writing, I’m grateful that some good is rising out of the ashes that was the garbage fire year of 2017, for myself personally and the world. The climate’s changing, steadily and slowly. I guess the anger I felt is that we as a species are so stubborn to advance ourselves, and hatred and racism are not only still a force, they also found a vessel in one of the highest powers on the planet. I’m not trying to reach any political platforms but you’d have to be completely blind to not know what I mean. Yet, much like the film’s struggles, and through my own feelings, I chose to embrace the emotions that are truly more powerful than any semblance of evil. I can talk about this now.
Mudbound takes place during and after the events of World War II. Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige) live and work on a huge farm in Mississippi, and maintain it with the help of their children — but the farm’s not theirs. They pay rent and save their dollars until they can buy one of their own, so they go through the grind while praying for their son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who was drafted to fight in the war. While they await his return, the farm receives new owners; Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) buys the farm and moves his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) their two children and Henry’s father (Jonathan Banks) to fulfill a dream that’s his, but not hers. Tensions grow while the two families co-exist on the land, and their lives spin completely around when two war heroes come home in Ronsel and Henry’s brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund).
I can’t stress enough how much I’m in love with this screenplay. Director Dee Rees (Pariah, Bessie), along with TV veteran Virgil Williams, adapt the script based on Hillary Jordan’s novel and it’s a work of pure artistry. Mudbound creates its voice by breaking it down, thereby giving its central characters a chance to speak and to shine. What’s that scene in Adaptation where the writer/teacher says voice-over is flaccid, sloppy writing? Look, sometimes voice-over can have disastrous results, but instead of focusing on the bad side, let’s focus on how it can be used as a powerful tool if conducted the right way. This film is an ideal example of when it works. Ranging from a couple of sentences to full scenes, we’re given insight into everybody’s ticks without losing the creation of their world in front of our eyes. If anything, it’s a firm security blanket to the pot-boiling events that happen in the first half of the film, because once the second half kicks in, the narration dissolves and we’re left alone with these characters, and let me tell you, it gets raw.
Rees lets the story evolve with each scene, and not a single second is wasted. I love seeing a filmmaker treat the story as the absolute most important thing in their hands without losing love for everything else. She treats Jordan’s novel like a priceless jewel, and every decision made is all about bringing it to life in the fullest. From the visual side, it’s absolutely gorgeous; cinematographer Rachel Morrison showcases marvelous work. Compare her efforts here to her earlier films like Fruitville Station and Dope and it’s easy to see why she’s one of the best in the business right now. Combine that with the editing talents of Mako Kamitsuna (you have to see We Are X) and Rees’ longtime music collaborator Tamar-kali, the world of Mudbound is summed up perfectly by a line from Mulligan: “I dream in brown.” The soul-crushing location is literally surrounded by mud, and yet it all feels like a surreal, to-the-heart dream (or nightmare, yet still beautiful).
And in this world, in this dream, in this nightmare — whichever term you want to use — the central heartbeat is its ensemble cast. They’ve already won a few awards by now, and by the time you finish watching this you just want to give them everything. I’m talking jaw-breaking-through-the-floor terrific. Right off the bat, this is the best performance Hedlund has ever given in his career so far. Blige is so brilliant, every time her character is on screen you cannot break away from everything she’s feeling. Hell, I’m getting emotional thinking about everyone’s work here. You can feel the heartbreak in Mitchell’s eyes, the despair in Mulligan’s cries, and evil incarnate in Banks’ mere presence. People out there who want something of their own so bad that they can taste it, they’ll relate to the power Morgan’s performance provides. Yes, I went through all of them and I regret nothing; each of them bring their characters to life with such ferocity that when they’re by themselves it’s powerful enough, but when they interact, hold yourself tight because there were times when I simply couldn’t breathe.
From the foundation of the novel to the final seconds, Mudbound is a very special, epic journey through the bowels of hatred during a time when being at each other’s throats was the last thing the world needed. Kind of like the times we live in today. As I mentioned earlier, the recent climate change is bringing a glimmer of hope in a world that is just appalling. You could set this film in modern times and the toxic environments could probably still play out beat by beat. And how awful is that to say for our times? But we can’t let it win. I’m not a fan of talking about what happens at the very end of any film you haven’t seen yet, but I don’t feel I’m giving anything away when I say that choices can and have to be made. And it’s hard. We’re all so angry and hurt and for a good reason, but these terrible feelings that found their way into our souls? Cast them out. Don’t let them win. Because even though it’s going to take an amount of work not yet seen in our history, we can be good and we can win. Mudbound took place in a time when the world wanted to implode. The characters made a choice. It takes strength. So I say, watch this film, breathe, think about your life and know that you have the strength. I think you do.
Missed you, folks. See you next week.