Sometimes I see movies that are strong but end weakly, sometimes they are strong except they sag in the middle, and sometimes they are slow to start but get me invested by the end. It’s a rare movie, especially of that slow burn indie film type, that is completely watchable throughout. Still, quality filmmaking tends to shine through even those doldrums.
Mudbound comes from director Dee Rees, who also co-wrote it based on the book of the same name by Hillary Jordan. It follows two families in parallel and in concert, one with a power dynamic over the other. Carey Mulligan plays Laura, a would be “spinster” who is lucky enough to find a man willing to marry her despite her love of books and being over thirty. That man is Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), a big, solid if plain man of the earth who dreams of owning a farm.
Henry also has a brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), a handsome and charming contrast, who takes an instant liking to his sister-in-law. But Jamie is sent off as a fighter pilot in World War II, and Henry takes his new family to the farm he has decided to buy without consulting his wife. They are off with their kids and Henry’s cantankerous, bigoted father “Pappy” (Jonathan Banks) to start a new life in what amounts to a few crops in a large tract of mud.
The McAllans are assisted by a black family, the Jacksons, who are essentially the hired servants of Henry and have to help however they can. The Jackson patriarch is Hap (Rob Morgan), who takes the world onto himself as he sacrifices everything to keep his family going. His wife is Florence (Mary J. Blige), and they have a large family, the eldest being Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who is off to war himself as part of the ground in Germany.
The movie builds up the relationships between Laura and Henry, showing how she’s basically just a background character in her own life, and how she tries to do her best to reach out to the Jacksons after Florence helps her daughter recover from illness. This is the obvious contrast to the overt racism of Pappy, who is cartoonishly if sadly realistically hateful.
Once we get into knowing more of these characters, the movie gets more interesting, and then jumps into more intrigue when Jamie returns from the war, damaged and traumatized. His charisma balanced against his instability is well written, and Garrett Hedlund is excellent as the emotionally wounded soldier. Finally things come to a boil when Ronsel returns too, and everything gets set up for an unlikely friendship and an unforgettable ending.
As to be expected, the acting is tremendous in this movie, and it is well shot, moving decently between scenes in the sky to deep in the mud. The writing isn’t always the most naturalistic, but the characterizations are strong. The story makes sense in where it goes, but it takes a bit too long for me to get interested in the first half of the movie.
The messages and themes are powerful, and are buoyed by consistently good acting and a technically proficient directing job. I can see why it’s getting rave reviews, even if it doesn’t quite hit those top marks for me.
Mudbound, now playing in limited theaters and streaming on Netflix, has a run time of 2 hours 14 minutes and is rated R for some disturbing violence, brief language and nudity.