MUDBOUND (2017) – Story of Two Farm Families & Racism in 1940s Mississippi Builds To Compelling Final Act

mudbound

MUDBOUND (2017) is a Netflix original movie from 2017 that tells the story of two families, one white and one black, who live and work on the same farm in the days following World War II. It was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress for Mary J. Blige, and Best Adapted Screenplay, but it didn’t win any.

In MUDBOUND, stoic and often cold Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) moves his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their young children to Mississippi to fulfill his dream of owning and operating a farm. Included in the move is his racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) who makes no secret of his hatred of blacks. When Henry realizes his deal to rent a farmhouse off the property of the farm was phony, and that he was swindled, he’s forced to move his family onto a much less attractive home on the actual farm, within walking distance of the black family who live there and work on the property.

This family belongs to Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige), who along with their children, all work on the farm. The stories and interactions of these two families are told through a variety of perspectives, as each character spends time in the movie as a first person narrator.

Two of the characters, Henry’s playboy brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) both serve in World War II and see combat, bloody scarring combat, and when they return after the war they form a friendship which crosses the racial divides of the time.

I liked MUDBOUND well enough, but for most of the movie’s two-hour and fourteen minute running time I found it watchable but seldom compelling, until the film’s final act, when the story focuses on the friendship between Jamie and Ronsel, and leads to the film’s brutal climax, the one moment in the movie that lifts it to a higher level. It’s a moment that is exceedingly disturbing yet equally powerful and captures the racial hatred of the time in a way that the rest of the movie only hints at.

One of the reasons I didn’t love MUDBOUND is the screenplay by Virgil Williams and director Dee Rees, based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, utilized the method of having multiple characters narrate the movie from their individual perspectives. While this seems very creative, it prevented the film from having a main narrative voice, that one character who as a viewer you could latch onto, buy into their story, and go along with them for the ride. This doesn’t really happen until the film’s final act, with the story of Jamie’s and Ronsel’s friendship, and the tragedy which ensues because of it.

Neither family, the McAllans or the Jacksons, really come to life. They each have their moments, and the film chronicles the often uncomfortable ways they have to deal with each other, because of the McAllan’s racist attitudes, but there are few moments that really stand out.

The film looks good, and with a title like MUDBOUND is sufficiently muddy. Director Dee Rees successfully captures the climate of rural Mississippi, with hard long rains, and thick soggy farmland. And while the story of the two families works, it never gets as emotional as I expected it to, except towards the end. The biggest reason for this lack of emotion was the lack of a main character to latch onto.

The acting in MUDBOUND is all very good. The two best performances were by Garret Hedlund as Jamie and Jason Mitchell as Rondell, and the story of their friendship is the best part of the movie. I especially thought Jason Mitchell knocked it out of the park.

As I said, Mary J. Blige was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the Jackson matriarch Florence, and Blige does give a noteworthy performance. She especially enjoys some key moments where she reflects on her role as a mother, like when she is called to care for the McAllan children who have developed whooping-cough, and she realizes what it would mean for her entire family if she were to fail and these children were to get worse or die.

I also really enjoyed Carey Mulligan as Henry’s long-suffering wife Laura. She too has some notable scenes, and she’s often the character who can see past her family’s racist views but knows she’s in no position to do anything about it. I hadn’t seen Mulligan in a while. She has delivered some very memorable performances in such films as THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) where she played Daisy Buchanan, and DRIVE (2011). Here, Mulligan is plain and down to earth, a farmer’s wife, which is a far cry from some of the more glamorous roles she’s played in the past.

Interestingly enough, her co-star here Jason Clarke, who plays her husband Henry, also starred in THE GREAT GATSBY as George Wilson. Clarke is fine here as hubby Henry, a man most in the audience will ultimately not like.

Rob Morgan does a commendable job as Hap Jackson, and Jonathan Banks is at his vile best as the extremely racist Pappy. If there’s one character who draws out an emotional reaction throughout, it’s Pappy, and Banks is excellent in the role. He’ll turn your stomach.

MUDBOUND was the first of the non-documentary Netflix movies to be nominated for an Academy Award, and all four of its nominations were for female nominees.

MUDBOUND tells a noteworthy and often disturbing story of racism in Mississippi in the days following World War II, and it tells this story through the lens of two families living on the same farm, one white and one black.

And while it’s not always as evocative and emotional as one would expect, it does build to a very disturbing conclusion that sears into its audience’s memory some rather horrific images, in a climax that lifts this film from historical narrative to tear-inducing drama.

It takes a while for this to happen, but overall, it’s worth the wait, as before the end credits role, the ugliness of racism rears its putrid head and reminds us why ultimately stories like this need to be told.

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