2018-07-19 / Around Town

‘Mudbound’ Paints Absorbing Image of 1940s Mississippi

By Loren King

Garrett Hedlund, left, and Jason Mitchell star in “Mudbound,” currently streaming on Netflix. Garrett Hedlund, left, and Jason Mitchell star in “Mudbound,” currently streaming on Netflix. With Netflix and Amazon now in the movie distribution game, it’s no longer true that the best movies of the year are strictly theatrical releases. Netflix’s “Mudbound,” a richly observed, engrossing drama about racial prejudice and the bonds of brotherhood, had a limited theatrical run in order to qualify for awards and has been available on the streaming service ever since. For anyone who wants to see a great movie without leaving the couch, “Mudbound” is a must.

Director Dee Rees, whose last film was the excellent “Bessie,” for HBO, about legendary blues singer Bessie Smith (with Virgil Williams), an adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s acclaimed 2006 novel of the same title. Rees has shifted the focus to a two-family saga that’s both intimate and epic. The multiple points of view layer the sprawling tragedy and make it a meaty and artful story.

Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. It begins with two men during a nighttime rainstorm, sloshing around in the mud, which is an ongoing metaphor for the unforgiving land and the stain of Southern sin. The two men in the Biblical battle are brothers Henry (Jason Clarke, who played Ted Kennedy in “Chappaquiddick” earlier this year) and Jamie McAllen (Garrett Hedlund). They are attempting to bury the corpse of their father.

The film then takes us back seven years to 1939, as Henry courts his future bride Laura (Carey Mulligan), a Memphis teacher, then whisks her off to a bleak life on a hardscrabble Mississippi farm. Sparks flew when Laura first met Henry’s worldly younger brother Jamie, but he’s now off in Europe flying bombing missions over Nazi Germany.

Laura and Henry, with Henry’s mean and bitter father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) in tow, are toiling on land that’s been home to the Jackson family for a generation. They are tenant farmers who would like to buy a parcel of their own, an economic near-impossibility under the tenant system. Laura understands that the Jackson’s position is one of institutionalized bondage, and she forms a kinship with patriarch Hap (Rob Morgan) and his wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige), who takes on the additional job of taking care of Laura’s house and kids when Laura falls ill.

“Mudbound” paints a vivid and absorbing picture of life in the Mississippi delta in the 1940s, with its racially entrenched social and economic systems. But the movie really hits its stride when Jamie and the Jackson’s oldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), return home from the war. Ronsel served under Gen. Patton with distinction and fell in love with a woman while stationed in Europe. But immediately upon his return, he encounters Pappy in a general store and the old man orders the soldier, still in uniform with medals on his chest, to leave through the back door. The snarling Pappy tells Ronsel he’s not in Europe anymore; he’s in Mississippi. If there’s a more chilling line in a recent movie, I’ve yet to hear it.

Jamie and Ronsel develop a brotherhood based on wartime trauma and genuine camaraderie. They drink, share stories and Ronsel warily accepts Jamie’s devil-may-care invitations to ride in the back of his pickup. But such kinship is anathema in the Jim Crow South. When the Ku Klux Klan shows up in their neighborhoods to teach these young men a lesson about knowing their place, the venomous violence is difficult to watch but rooted in reality and absolutely, necessarily gutting.

Aided by Rachel Morrison’s stunning, stark cinematography that earned her an Oscar nomination, and David Bomba’s meticulous production design, Rees confidently creates a world that’s both foreign and recognizable. The film echoes Faulkner’s novels in a regional specificity that’s so keenly observed that it becomes universal.

“Mudbound” is old-fashioned in the best sense. Its literary fidelity and historical heft offer an unsettling look at the past, while at the same time packing the visceral wallop of the present.

Return to top