From the London Film Festival: Mudbound

Mudbound is the new Netflix original movie, and yet another jab at any critic who believes the streaming service is unable to make compelling and significant films. Dee Rees directs this epic drama about two families in 1940s rural Mississippi. The McAllans are a young white family hoping to succeed in farming while the Jacksons are the impoverished black family forced to work on their land. Slavery may have ended in the previous decade but these people find themselves trapped in the same roles.

A member of each of these families goes off to fight in World War 2. From the McAllans is the charismatic uncle, Jaimie (Garrett Hedlund), who joins the air force. From the Jacksons, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who joins the tank division. Both men then return from the war and try to settle back into civilian life. But, compared to the deeply racist south, it seems that the men faced a less hostile environment back in Germany. The only kinship they find is in each other, much to their families chagrin.

In spite of the epic scope there is remains something a bit…  television about this production. Perhaps it’s the sprawling plot which occasionally loses track of who the main characters are. And it’s all too episodic to be truly compelling. It also lacks the visual flare of cinema. Most shots are fairly conventional and the action sequences can’t help but have the feel of cheapness about them, with the exception of one fantastically claustrophobic sequence set within a bomber plane. There’s also a sometimes overbearing narration that seems to be trying to invoke Terrence Malik, but without the majesty. Which is definitely not a good thing.

There is, however, much to admire. The performances are all excellent. Hedlund and Mitchell are incredibly charming in their (almost) lead roles. The respect and appreciation they share for each other forms the heart of the film (and should really have been the main focus, perhaps by arriving an hour earlier into the film).

Jason Clarke is also excellent as the stern and somewhat joyless patriarch of the family. He may be the most complicated character in the film, seeming to regret the limitations of the time he lives in and yet never willing to shrug them off. Carey Mulligan carries much of the film as the young mother of the McAllans family. She’s a strong and determined figure and yet her sorrow is very relatable. Jonathan Banks is a terrifying old racist who has thoroughly shed any of the charm he wielded so effectively in Breaking Bad and Community.

In the Jackson family we have Rob Morgan who is a commanding presence in every scene he is in. He bears a huge strength and palpable sorrow. His wife,  played by Mary J. Blige, is a very strong and capable woman, who is also hiding this great pain.

The sheer size of the cast is enough to reveal the vast nature of the story that unfolds. They do spend enough time with all of these characters to really showcase the strengths of the actors performing them. It’s just that the timing is a little uneven. We might spend an entire act with one character only to not see them again until the conclusion. Perhaps this would have been better suited to a miniseries. But this is an incredible story and one that’s worth seeing regardless of the format.

The film is of course a tragedy. There’s a terrifying bleakness overhanging the characters as they each try to eke out a living. But hope permeates the narrative. Hope that ultimately people can achieve an understanding of each other through shared experiences. In developing a romantic subplot between Ronsel and a German girl, there’s this wonderful story that love will always transcend hatred.

4 / 5

Paul Salt is co-host of the podcast One Good Thing.

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