To get a truly great performance in a film, the actor, director, writers, and casting department all have to be spot on. To do what Mudbound does and get probable career-best performances from almost the entirety of its huge ensemble cast is pretty much miraculous, and evidence of a top-flight casting department and director Dee Rees at the absolute top of their game. From Garrett Hedlund to a transformative Mary J Blige, these actors have been gifted with an exceptionally rich and deep set of characters, as they try and make their way through war, racism, and, yes, a crushing amount of mud.
Adapted from Hilary Jordan’s epic novel, Mudbound covers fifteen years on a Mississippi farmstead from 1931 to 1946, roping in the Second World War, PTSD, and race relations in its central story of the ties between two families. The white McCallan family owns the land upon which the black Jackson family are stakeholders, and their relationship is fractious at best. McCallan patriarch Pappy (Jonathan Banks) is a vile Confederate racist and his son, and farm owner, Henry (Jason Clarke), though less openly hostile, can never bring himself to recognise that the Jacksons are just as human as him.
Florence (Blige) and Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) take these injustices with the grace required to survive in the viciously bigoted South, but it only becomes harder to bear after their son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) goes to war, and even then doesn’t get the respect he deserves from the McCallans. Jordan’s novel was told through multiple points of view, and Rees’s adaptation is incredibly faithful to this technique. It makes for one of the most impressively novelistic films in recent memory, adding the to the epic atmosphere, making it feel like you’re really watching something Big And Important. Some of the voiceovers, though, are too much ‘tell not show’ storytelling, and though everyone’s normal dialogue is comprehensible, the sweeping speeches are overly gravelly and lost behind loud music.
For the first half of the film, the story’s interest is rather one-sided, with the Jacksons holding most attention due to the McCallans, with the exception of the empathetic Laura (Carey Mulligan), being impossible to root for. At points, it even threatens to get rather stolid, and the 2 hour 15 minute runtime does make itself felt. But after Ronsel returns from the war and bonds with Henry’s suave younger brother Jamie (Hedlund) over their shared combat experience, things really perk up.
Many damning statements on America’s racism are made over the course of Mudbound, but perhaps the most powerful is the simple conceit that Jamie comes back from war reduced while Ronsel is given a new lease on life. Both suffer from PTSD, but the European civilians’ welcoming of the black American liberation troops raised Ronsel’s expectation of what he can get out of society, an expectation that the white townsfolk are desperate to shatter. It’s as infuriating as it should be, and the fact that the hatred on display is still so alive in modern America lends Mudbound an unfortunate but immensely powerful timelessness.
Ronsel and Jamie’s friendship stirs up the bigotry to a fever pitch, before it explodes into a bout of violence so unwatchably heinous that no amount of justice or vengeance can shift the shuddering horror and desperation of the moment from your mind. Rees never shies away from gruesome scenes (a resetting of a broken leg had the whole cinema wincing), but doesn’t descend into gratuitousness in the suffering. The characters are so fully drawn by Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams, and so believably acted by the cast, that you don’t need to see the hideous violence in full detail to feel for them.
Hedlund has never been given a chance to be this good before, reminiscent of Charlie Hunnam’s shimmering brilliance in Lost City of Z, and Rob Morgan’s performance is full of contagious pain and joy, his reunion with Ronsel incredibly touching. If one had to pick a true standout though, it would be Mary J Blige. As written, Florence’s role in less able hands could have been a simplistically angelic martyr, but Blige puts forward her motivations and reservations with the tiniest of gestures.
It’s the heftiest performance, but no one actor is allowed to be the centrepiece of the film, everything carrying equal emotional and thematic weight. Mudbound is the definition of a team effort of a film, captained by fantastic direction from Dee Rees. Most of the time, everything is drowning in a sea of brown, but moments of hope and escape are allowed, and Rees and her DOP Rachel Morrison let brighter colours briefly shine through. After so much sadness and oppression, these small hints of hope make for glorious viewing, showing us that even though progress is slow, it demands to be made.