“Mudbound” is strong meat: a brooding drama of Southern prejudice and interracial brotherhood, a story built on classic literary and cinematic bones, and a personal triumph for filmmaker Dee Rees (“Pariah”), who with this film moves into the big leagues. The movie breaks no new ground other than to redress the balance of whose stories get told in mainstream narratives about race in America. It simply is a powerful and moving story, told with a wealth of nuances but no recourse to subtlety where none is needed.
The film is based on Hillary Jordan’s 2006 prize-winning novel of the same title, and it opens with a scene out of Faulkner, Steinbeck, or the Bible: two battling brothers burying their father in a raging night-time storm, the grave filling with slurries of mud. If that strikes you as a concise metaphor for the history of the American South, you’re not alone.
Flashing back seven years, to 1939, we meet the stolid Henry McAllen (Jason Clarke) as he woos his future bride Laura (Carey Mulligan), cultivated and on the edge of spinsterhood. Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is more dashing and soulful, and there’s a spark between him and Laura that smolders through the entire film, even when Jamie sets out to fly bombing missions over Nazi Germany and Henry moves his wife and daughters to a failing Mississippi farm 40 miles from nowhere.
Paralleling the McAllens’ story is that of the Jacksons, tenant farmers on Henry’s meager parcel of dirt. The patriarch, Hap (Rob Morgan), dreams of owning his own land but is enough of his generation — and invested in self-preservation — to kowtow to Henry’s brusque, unthinking demands. Among the many things “Mudbound” unerringly dramatizes is an entire system of bondage, institutional and personal, that has continued to thrive well over half a century after the failures of Reconstruction.
Hap’s wife, Florence (singer Mary J. Blige in a quiet but rock-ribbed performance) keeps her counsel as well, but their oldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), heads off to Europe to serve as a tank sergeant under Patton, where he learns what freedom looks and feels like. “Mudbound” gathers steam as he and Jamie return from war in 1946, both wiser and more damaged and neither ready to accept the state of things they left behind.
Rees and her collaborators — cinematographer Rachel Morrison, editor Mako Kamitsuna, production designer David Bomba, composer Tamar-Kali Brown — walk a confident line between the intimate and the epic. Sometimes they stray, as in a subplot about a desperately poor white family that feels whittled down from the book and might have been jettisoned altogether. But the film easily gets the intricacies of daily racial politics in rural Mississippi — the many protective masks worn by Southern blacks; the ways in which “good” whites like Henry remain active participants in a system of grinding inequity.
The heart of the film and the source of its hopes isn’t the yearning felt by Jamie for his brother’s wife, but rather his friendship with Ronsel, two men traumatized by their wartime experiences and who thus share a deeper bond than anyone around them understands. The two drink away their shaky hands, share horror stories from the front, and, whenever they drive past local whites, Ronsel ducks down so they won’t see that Jamie’s driving with a colored man in the front seat. It’s as if the two were in an adulterous social relationship — which they are, as the brothers’ venomous old Pappy (Jonathan Banks) intuitively understands.
Cheating on your own race cannot stand in the hothouse culture depicted in the film, and the climactic scenes of “Mudbound” are difficult to watch, the more so for being so solidly rooted in historical truths. Neither Pappy nor his ugly-minded friends in the white sheets feel overdrawn. On the contrary, they feel exactly life-size.
“Mudbound” is four-square and unshowy, and you might mistake it for old-fashioned. But the presence of an African-American director behind the camera affects everything in front of it. The film carries inside it a genetic memory of America’s racial legacy that stretches both back to the past and ahead to the years to come. This particular story, as localized and “small” as it is, is situated on a pivot point between an awful Then and a Now that still has very far to go. Rees has the eye of a born storyteller, and she uses it to show us everything — and everybody — the movies hid from us for years.
Directed by Dee Rees. Written by Rees and Virgil Williams, based on the novel by Hillary Jordan. Starring Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige. At Waltham Embassy. 134 minutes. R (disturbing violence, brief language, and nudity).