‘Mudbound’ is a Harrowingly Timely Period Epic

Gorgeous and haunting, it's one of the year's best films.

­Nothing opens a movie like a grave-digging. That’s how Dee Rees starts Mudbound, with two men in a field, digging a hole for their father, trying to get it done before the rapidly approaching rains arrive, and failing. The next morning, they put him in the ground, in a scene full of worried looks and things unsaid; this scene, it turns out, is at the end of Rees’s story, and she will return to it. When she does, it’s clear that this isn’t some snazzy narrative gimmick; we revisit it knowing what’s happening in all those pregnant pauses, and behind the eyes of its participants.

Mudbound is drawn from Hillary Jordan’s bestselling novel, and I’m willing to bet that when Rees and Virgil Williams set about writing their screenplay, they worried about the narration. Literary adaptations are tricky in a multitude of ways; this book is told from the shifting perspectives of the six key characters (three white, three black), which is the kind of thing that can work on the page but leave us stranded in the weeds on film. Yet they kept it, and it’s invaluable. The shifting narration allows multiplicity of agency – this is no single person’s story, so it’s not told from any single perspective.

It concerns two families: the Jacksons, a black family of tenant farmers that work a cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta, and the McAllens, the white family that owns the land. The Jacksons have been their for years, and presumably will be for many more, until they can scrape together enough to buy a plot of their own; the scammery of these arrangements is not the picture’s primary subject, but Rees includes one small scene, of a mule-rental shakedown, that’s like a tiny microcosm for generational and institutional economic plunder. But the Jacksons do their best; it’s a big family, full of love, particularly between eldest son Ronsel (the superb Jason Mitchell, sporting a wonderfully soft-spoken drawl) and parents Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige).

The warmth between the father and son is particularly striking in contrast to the relationship between Jamie McAllan (Garret Hedlund) and “Pappy” McAllan (Jonathan Banks); the resentments and hostilities between them, and how they’re manifested, could fill a book. (Banks is absolutely chilling as a man with bile on his tongue and hate in his heart.) When he first meet Jamie, he’s a bit of a dandy, while his brother Henry (Jason Clarke) is a roughneck – but one who’s already fallen for Laura (Carey Mulligan), and the potential of a love triangle lurks under their relationship. (“Jamie has that effect on girls,” Henry tells her, with resignation in his voice. “They sparkle for him.”) Laura is mild and agreeable, as most women had to be in the 1940s, but she’s got bite; as the story progresses, she begins to look like one of those dark-eyed, hard-faced women in Walker Evans’ Dust Bowl photos.

Both families send a young man to fight in WWII, and both men return feeling the shivers of what was not yet called PTSD. Jamie comes back looking sharp but broken inside, in an endless loop of drinking and wallowing, with a bad case of survivor’s remorse (“Men who died that day, there were good men. Husbands, fathers. A lot better’n me”). Ronsel experiences the cultural disconnect of so many black soldiers, who returned from a Europe that didn’t treat them as second-class citizens, and wondered why they were fighting for a country that did. “Over there, I was a liberator,” Ronsel shrugs. “Here, I’m just another nigger pushin’ a plow.” The two men end up quietly bonding over the shared experience of war, loss, and fear, forming a friendship that’s warm and genuine and, ultimately, doomed.

Their bond is so strong that the descent into violence is especially shocking – as is the dreadful certainty that precedes it, of knowing this is where it’s going, because that’s where these things always go. The tragedy is rendered all the more harrowing by the director’s skill and technique: how she crafts her compositions, how she uses the subjective camera, when she turns down the sound, and what she replaces it with. Her gift at holding an audience is apparent throughout the picture; she’ll crosscut action not just between protagonists or families, but continents. Her film is episodic without feeling disjointed, literary but undeniably cinematic. It’s frankly astonishing, how precisely she moves between the threads and weaves them together, doing so with such grace, we may not realize how it’s all primed to explode at once.

Mudbound is staggeringly good. It’s lyrical and evocative, yet dread-filled and terrifying; much of the latter feeling is provided by Tamar-Kali’s moody score (rhythmic and involving, simple yet sweeping) and Rachel Morrison’s bravura cinematography, which recalls the vivid and slightly oversaturated look of early Technicolor. She usually shoots in close, but her camera occasionally goes wide, emphasizing the big blue sky above these characters. It’s so open, but day after day and year after year, it traps and crushes them.

The even split of black and white characters makes this a movie that a fair number of studio heads and financiers would have handed to a white director, or a male one. But Rees’s lens adds dozens of tiny details and touches, acknowledgments and reminders, and it’s a richer movie because of her perspective. Her first film, Pariah, was a small, bracing character study; here, she makes a sweeping period drama, a film that represents a giant leap in scope and ambition. In one film, she has catapulted herself from a promising newcomer to a thrilling master filmmaker.

“Mudbound” opens tomorrow in select cities and streams on Netflix.