Mudbound dir. Dee Rees (2017)
What a rare and wonderful feeling it is to see a film that you’ve been anticipating for months and have it not only live up to your expectations, but surpass them. This was the spirit in which I watched Dee Rees’s Mudbound, a an emotionally rich, visually sumptuous American epic.
The movie is based on a novel by Hillary Jordan that I found frankly disappointing, but whereas Jordan’s novel shortchanged her black characters, screenwriters Virgil Williams and Dee Rees expand their point of view to make them full-fledged human beings with desires and lives of their own.
Spanning roughly a decade, the film follows two families living in Mississippi pre-, peri-, and post WWII. The McAllans are a white collar middle-class family descended from plantation owners. The Jacksons are upwardly mobile tenant farmers descended from slaves. Their lives intersect when Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) buys the farm that the Jacksons work on and uproots his refined city wife (Carey Mulligan), their two children, and his widowed father to the dirty broken-down farmhouse on the land. For Henry, the land is something he’s entitled to, replacement for the legacy he was cheated out of when his father sold the plantation that his grandfather once owned along with the slaves who worked it. For the Jacksons their connection with the land is a connection with their history and themselves. Walking in the fields he toils Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), the family patriarch, muses on the fact that his family has lived and worked and died there for generations. They may no longer be slaves, but Hap knows that his family’s present and future is incredibly fragile and that any ill wind, including the whims of powerful white men, could set his family back for years or for life.
I suppose, given the subject matter, the film could have easily come across as didactic or heavy handed, but Rees is a filmmaker of insight and imagination and under her direction Mudbound becomes an ode to family, friendship, legacy and love. It is a slow-winding piece and while I’ve seen some describe it as the unlikely friendship between two WWII veterans, one black and one white, to me Mudbound is very much about what it is in its first half, the struggle of two opposing families who want to establish their legacies and secure their futures.
While a lot of praise must be given to director/co-writer Rees, she is matched every step of the way by some truly stellar collaborators, from her cast (not a weak link among the principle seven, and though I’m sure everyone will have their individual favourites, Rob Morgan, as the Jackson family patriarch, was mine), the cinematography which is lush, sweeping and impartial, capturing violence and beauty with the same steady gaze, and the score which is chillingly good and helps imbue the film with a nauseating tension that only dissipates in the final frames.
What Rees has created here is a masterwork that is richly textured and incredible to watch and one I can’t wait to revisit again and again.