Based on the 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan and co-written and directed by Dee Rees, “Mudbound” is an attempt at an agrarian epic of the kind that proliferated in the 1980s, with such films as “Country,” “Places in the Heart,” and “The River.” In form, it’s scaled big, with a narrative structure based on multiple points of view and time shifts. Rees and her co-writer, Virgil Williams, focus on the intertwinings of two families, one black and one white, in the shared farmland of the Mississippi Delta during World War II and its immediate aftermath.
The movie is admirable in its ambitions; in its execution, less so. The difficulty in making an “intimate” epic is that the characters have to fill out the frame in ways that are both highly individualized and symbolic. They have to be both lifelike and larger-than-life. In “Mudbound,” this combination works only fitfully.
Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) is a landowner in Memphis, Tenn., who moves with his new, educated wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), to the Mississippi Delta in order to fulfill his ambition to work the fields. Finding himself, as a result of a swindle, occupying a mud shack instead of the well-appointed home he envisioned, Henry, who has no great aptitude for farming, tries to make a go of it. Working for him are the Jacksons, a black family that has been sharecropping the land for generations. However compliant they appear, Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige), are wary of their new white overseers. They want nothing to subvert their dream to one day buy their own land.
Three other major characters fill out the roster. Pappy (Jonathan Banks), the McAllan patriarch who lives with Henry and his family, is an unregenerate racist. Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), a fine arts student at Ole Miss, has recently returned from the war, where he served as a bombardier over Germany. His counterpart is the Jacksons’ son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who served under General Patton with a tank battalion, which was made up mainly of black soldiers. Both are war heroes of a sort, although Jamie, to a greater extent than Ronsel, can’t shake off the horribleness of what he survived. Ronsel, who was not subjected to overt racism while serving in the war and even had a German girlfriend, finds himself humiliated, and much worse, by Pappy and his Klansman cronies.
Rees allows most of these characters their own space to speak, in voice-over, their thoughts and travails. The shifting narratives are intended to give a kaleidoscopic, Faulkneresque resonance to the proceedings, but most of the time I felt wrenched from one story to another. This is especially true of the more interesting narratives, mostly involving the Jacksons, who by all rights deserved their own movie.
The Jacksons’ quiet dignity could have been respectfully boring, but the actors bring to their roles a level of lived-in authenticity that lifts the film whenever they are on screen. (With the McAllan clan, by contrast, I often felt as if I were watching seasoned actors going through the motions.) We can see in Hap’s measured gaze both his hopefulness and vigilance. There are marvelous, telling moments, such as the way Hap, not knowing who might be knocking at his door, reaches for his ax, only to be met by Henry, who likes to show up unannounced at the Jackson house. By Jim Crow standards, Henry is relatively benign, but we can see in Hap’s eyes that he is not to be trusted (especially with such a virulent father).
The biggest surprise is Blige’s performance, although it really shouldn’t be that surprising. Singers, after all, not infrequently make good actors – Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, et al. In a sense, they are actors when they are performing; they are telling a story in sounds, words, and movement.
Blige, the queen of hip-hop and soul, is virtually unrecognizable, but her underplaying in no way negates her force. It’s a self-contained force that she possesses here, and she knows when to loosen the bonds. In perhaps the film’s softest, and best, scene, Hap and Florence, having endured so much, move gently into a quiet dance, and we can see at once how much these two mean to each other.
As I say, would that the entire film were theirs. Grade: B- (Rated R for some disturbing violence, brief language, and nudity.)