We are all human and thus we know what it is to be sad and to cry. Movies are able to elicit tears by pressing certain buttons and Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” is excellent at knowing just how to push those buttons. There were many tearful eyes during the press and industry screening of “Mudbound” at the New York Film Festival, and some of the crying was intense.
However, the ability to put a powerful image on the screen—the ability to evoke tears—isn’t the same thing as making a great movie. While Rees’ film, which is based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, does put a lot of emotional elements into the film, and has a final 15 or 20 minutes that are great, the whole of it is not.
Taking place during and immediately after World War II, “Mudbound” is the story of two families in Mississippi, the white McAllan family, and the African American Jackson family. It is a tale of economic hardship, racial injustice, striving to be something better, women’s equality, and a handful of other things as well.
The word “epic” was used during the post-film Q&A at the festival in discussing the film and there is something of an epic-like attempt about it. A number of the characters offer up their own internal monologue at different points in the movie, giving us their view of other characters, what’s going on with them, and why they make the choices they do.
While we certainly get inside the minds of these characters in better fashion due to these monologues, it also lends a scattershot feel to the narrative. The result is less epic and more sprawling in a disparate sort of way. “Mudbound” becomes the story of a swirling set of feelings.
One of the big things that movie has trouble with, however, is the very notion of why the McAllan’s are so tied to this land. We watch as Henry (Jason Clarke) explains to his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), that he’s always wanted to be a farmer and consequently he has decided to up and move his from their suburban home where he (presumably) has a good job to a farm in rural Mississippi. It comes out that Henry’s father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), sold their land when Henry was young, but that still doesn’t explain why he wants to live on this—as far as we can see—not terribly great piece of land in a not terribly hospitable area. Then, when things go badly on the land, the film fails to offer up great logic for why they stay (the only answer can be that Henry is too headstrong to leave, but that’s unsatisfying). When we see Henry earlier in the film alongside his brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), they seem to be if not well off, certainly comfortable, the idea of then moving to this distinctly uncomfortable life is troubling.
It makes more sense why Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan); his wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige); and their kids, including Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), live in the area. They seem to have been there for years (if not generations), have ties to the area, and dream of working their way up. Ronsel heads off to war (as does Jamie), but while he’s in Europe it’s never questioned that he’ll return to his family and their home.
Rees and her team, including cinematographer Rachel Morrison, make it clear that this is a hard place to live, an unforgiving place. It is a place where breaking a leg or losing a horse means a loss of livelihood, possibly food, and maybe even a home.
Running 132 minutes, “Mudbound” wallows in this misery, like Henry wallows in his muddy farm. The question the audience has to ask about the film’s wallowing is the same one that Henry has already answered for himself – is there something noble in it? “Mudbound” struggles to make that case for the land and the lifestyle, it even makes it explicit that Laura hates it there. As the whole movie is about it being a hard life, garnering sympathy for those who do it unnecessarily is difficult. To be sure, there is some, and there are good elements prior to the aforementioned conclusion, but they are spread thin.
It is much easier to feel something for Ronsel and Jamie who struggle with the war and its aftermath. These are men who experience things both horrible and wonderful overseas and then have to return to civilian life as though they are unchanged. It is an impossible task.
The performances Rees gets from her actors are nothing short of superb. It is impossible to watch the movie and not feel a strong emotion (love or hate) for each of these characters.
Watching “Mudbound” one can’t help but get the sense that they are seeing in Rees a filmmaker who deserves to have a long, illustrious, career. There is something about the endeavor as a whole that feels like Henry’s dogged persistence in making a go of the farm. There are so many different stories being told here, so many problems to tackle, so great a chance for disaster. And yet, Rees stitches it together into a single film that may falter at times, that may wallow in misery, but which still has something remarkable in it.
I look forward to seeing what Rees does next.
photo credit: Netflix