TIFF17: Mudbound

Mudbound is novelistic in the truest sense of the word, capturing the diverse perspectives and internal dialogues of its characters with empathy and careful detail. While it could easily fall into the trap of so many ambitious literary adaptations—stilted dialogue, lush visuals with no sense of pacing, a fidelity to the text that supersedes any sense of how movies should operate—Mudbound instead manages to be an impressively textured work of adaptation that seems both literary and cinematic. I am not familiar with the book, but director Dee Rees has created an exploration of pride, family conflict, and racial tensions that is more honest and insightful than most films dealing with such volatile subject matter.

The narrative of Mudbound is sprawling in terms of the number of narrators, but tightly-knit in terms of geography, like a Faulkner novel or a great Canadian prairie classic like Wild Geese. It concerns two families on a farm in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s, one white and the other black. The white family—Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), and brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund)—owns the farm, while the black family—Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife, Florence (Mary J. Bilge), and eldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell)—work the farm as sharecroppers.

The nature of the Jim Crow South naturally puts these families at odds with each other—it’s repeatedly emphasized how Henry condescends to the Jacksons as if he owns them, even if they pay rent to work the land—but the tensions only truly come to a head as Jamie and Ronsel return from service in World War II and strike up a friendship, crossing racial bounds that weren’t crossed in 1946 Mississippi.

While the film covers a lot of narrative ground, depicting Jamie’s and Ronsel’s service time in Europe for instance, Rees is more interested in Mudbound as a source for the exploration of power dynamics within and without families than as a plot machine. The slowburn narrative divides its focus between the families and the individual members, letting us inside their heads with narration that clarifies the emotional outcomes of scenes big and small. Through these internal monologues we get insight into the thoughts of the characters—how Laura both loves and resents her husband, for instance, or how Hap cannot come to terms with his son’s newfound conception of racial equality—but the monologues are not purely expository. Instead, they’re more like if the voiceovers in Terrence Malick films had direct correlation to the conflict of a scene instead of existing on a different spiritual plane.

There is more to Mudbound’s connection to Malick than just the voiceover. The way Rees and cinematographer Rachel Morrison shoot the film with a roving camera and use soft, natural light evokes Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki’s work. As well, the editing rhythms seem more determined by the emotions of the characters than editing convention. However, there is a big difference between Rees and Malick, in that Mudbound is interested in more than the existential experience of its characters. As its title lays out, it’s a film that lives in the mud and the dirt. Its internal conflicts matter, but the external conflicts, between race and class, cannot be ignored. The cinematography literally revels in depictions of mud and muck to bring this point home.

The film’s insight on race comes out best in the horrifying ending, which unleashes all the simmering racism and resentment like a balloon bursting from too much water. The end might seem like a dip into exploitation after the understatement of the rest of the film, but it is essential to understanding how racial tensions are rarely left to simmer in the real world. In 1946 Mississippi (and even now), they come to the fore and destroy whatever uneasy peace exists.

Mudbound manages the neat trick of being both personal and political. It’s a slowburn drama that builds to a horrifying pitch as a means of showing the logical outcome of racial conflict in its place and time. That it does more than relay racial oppression—it refuses to victimize its black characters and instead depicts them and their white neighbours’ fascinating and conflicted inner lives—means it works as more than a message film.

Timeliness might help Mudbound at the 2018 Oscars, but its artistry is what’ll keep it relevant when next February is long past.

8 out of 10

Mudbound (2017, USA)

Directed by Dee Rees; written by Dee Rees and Virgil Williams based on the novel by Hillary Jordan; starring Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Bilge, Jonathan Banks, Rob Morgan.