The first part of this film is practically Spoon River on the Delta or some other kind of multi-voiced poem. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a tale to be told nor characters to get to know. Mudbound deconstructs the post-WWII South with an unflinching eye, even if it doesn’t quite have the same lyricism as Daughters of the Dust, nor the scope of The Color Purple. There is also a sense of the slice of life approach and class implications of Tree of Wooden Clogs. Suffice to say, it isn’t easy viewing, despite its moments of joy and despite its victories against all odds.
At its core, this is a simple tale of two families. Each is played well by a collection of great talent.
Carry Mulligan (Far From the Madding Crowd), Jason Clarke (Everest), Garrett Hedlund (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), and Jonathan Banks are the owners on one side of the Mississippi homestead. They cover a broad swath of sensibilities, but none of them are particularly people you’d want to praise.
The sharecroppers are led by Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan (Daredevil), and Jason Mitchell (Kong: Skull Island, Straight Outta Compton). Like the white land owners, this is a family in transition of ideas thanks in large part to WWII. And it is Mitchell who ultimately dominates the family portrayal and transition into a more modern world.
Dee Rees (Pariah) navigated the complex narrative with confidence as director and co-writer. And though her politics are clear, she does try to show a range of attitudes and people. But you can’t help but realize you are looking at the once and future America; it is the very world a number of our current leaders are actively trying to make us return to. In fact, the day I watched this was the day of the S*thole countries tweet. Sobering to say the least.
But is it a great movie? Not really. It is a well-crafted story with some very powerful performances and moments. It is an emotionally effective one at times too. But it isn’t very strong in its ultimate message nor is the narrative compelling in a way that pulls you along–it is a framed loop with a coda in structure, so you have a pretty good sense of the story before you’re more than a scene or two in. The voice-overs were generally distancing rather than informative for me; I would have preferred action to convey the ideas over being told about them. However, it is a brave, bald piece that probably does need to be seen by a good sized segment of the populace so we can avoid backsliding. And the movie is told in an unusual way with a ultimate sense of hope in the cruelest of situations; we can all use some of that these days.