NYFF Film Review: MUDBOUND Channels Pain and Suffering in the Old South
The festival darling Mudbound, another Netflix acquisition that has made its way to this year’s New York Film Festival, tells the story of two families as they deal with the challenges of rural Mississippi from the 1930s through the 50s. Race, racism, war, violence are at the center of the melee, which has a distinctive and welcome female tone to its voice. But, like so other topics that make and will always make fodder for movie scripts, a movie that revisits our racial past is forced by its genre to provide something to distinguish it from its companions. For Mudbound, that validation does come, eventually, from a rather surprising source.
The story is focused, at least in theory, on the matriarchs of two families. Laura, played by Carey Mulligan, is the head of the McAllans, a working class family that owns farm land in Mississippi. When the film opens, Laura is a Southern Belle bordering on spinster status, despite being primed and donned to be domesticated. A savior arrives in Henry (Jason Clarke, with film credits such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Terminator: Genisys to his name), a bit rough around the edges but works hard and is dedicated. Henry has a much handsomer younger brother, Jamie, played by Tron: Legacy’s Garrett Hedlund. While Laura does marry Henry, she clearly has a more passionate connection with the more virile Jamie. The three, plus the McAllan’s horrifyingly racist father “Pappy,” move to the homestead, setting up a more or less archetypical life/love epic.
On the other side of the farm, working for the McAllans for a pittance, is a black family whose matriarch Florence (singer Mary J. Blige) leads the Jacksons through field, house, and home work. Her husband Hap works as farmer and repairman, forced to keep his head down by the terrible racism that infects the nation in the 1930s age in which this story begins. They have a bounty of children, the eldest of which Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) soon finds himself war-bound.
Mudbound is at least in theory told from a decidedly female perspective. It is based on the 2008 novel by author Hillary Jordan, and focuses most of the first half on the intense struggles of the women at the center of it all. Laura, in particular, is given the lion’s share of the screen time, as she struggles with the move from well-to-do debutante to mother of two, living in a shack in the middle of a mud field while her husband tends to the farm. Laura gets her hands dirty, she gets sick, she must put up with her nasty father in law, and the frustration of growing increasingly separated from her husband.
Other players do get a turn at the mic, eventually filling in an episode or two with a voiceover told from different perspectives. The effect of that device, however, is to further dismember a film that already feels somewhat disjointed, skipping from hero to hero without a coherent sense of purpose beyond the telling of a novella’s tale. Director Dee Rees’ muted touch never gets in the way of the narrative, which is mostly good but also bad insofar as it makes the movie feel procedural rather than personal. There are some moments of jarring violence that jump out from the otherwise stoic developments, but not much more is offered along the lines of vision.
It is not until the second half, when Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson return from World War II that Mudbound becomes a moving and heart-wrenching tale. Throughout the first part of the film, Rees peppers in fragmented (there’s that problem again) scenes of the two young men serving in different capacities in different theaters of the war. They both escape near misses, lose a number of colleagues, and return home to nominally heroic but in actuality vastly different receptions.
Ronsel comes back, buoyed by his service and heroism to rise above and demand the equality he and his family so desperately deserve. Jamie comes back a broken man, the shadow of death cast as a gloomy pall over him and his outlook. Ronsel runs into the thicket of hatred in post-war Mississippi, Jamie creates the marsh of thorns for himself. The two men naturally gravitate towards each other and form an unlikely friendship, and it is then that Mudbound excels as a spectacular picture.
In place of the long, pouty scenes with Laura’s (admittedly tough sufferings), which are anchored by yet another gloomy performance by an actress I have never quite connected with, we are treated to the much more nuanced and complex minds of the war scarred and battle tested as they face even greater demons. Gone are all the facile allegories about mud mucking up a human life, and we are given an insight into the demonic contradiction that inured in our fighting fascist powers that espoused racial cleansing while stomping around in spiked white robes and mutilating and murdering on the basis of race.
Through their booze-soaked soirees and conversations, Jamie and Ronsel both discover surprising things about race-relations that would not have occurred to either of them—Jamie sees the cruelty of white supremacy and soundly rejects it, Ronsel sees that there is still hope that some white men will turn into the light. Along the way, the audience also unearths complicated truths about our past, about the devastating effects of war, and about the extent and pervasiveness of hatred—yes, it is possible that there are still new dimensions to learn in that field, and that is Mudbound’s greatest achievement.
I found myself genuinely surprised that a movie that bills itself as a female-driven, woman-perspective tale about race, about strife, and about our sordid past, really shone more when the spotlight was ceded to the men. Perhaps this was purposeful, perhaps not. But what is undeniably true is that as the last few sequences make their way into your brain in Mudbound, the emotional devastation will be real, not only because of the “simple” moniker of racism, but because the bond between Jamie and Ronsel has been rendered so believable.
It is in creating that touching connection between the two men that Mudbound manages to stand out from the rest and take us to unexplored territories in the racial-tension space which it inhabits.
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