Mudbound has been on my mind a lot since I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival a few months ago. In observing the vitriol spewed toward NFL players peacefully invoking their right to protest, my thoughts have turned to one of the common talking points regarding how such protests are a slap in the face to folks in the military. Those who fought to provide the players with the freedoms and rights to protest in the first place. What this ridiculously circular argument fails to factor in is that the country that many in these soldiers have sworn to protect has not always treated them heroes they are.
This is a historical point that Dee Rees’ poetic and beautiful drama Mudbound understands. During the war Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) were viewed as liberators overseas. Despite their differing skin tones, they were Americans who were willing to put their lives on the line to protect others. However, returning home was a whole different story. Suffering from the effects of PTSD, Jamie finds it tough to acclimatize to life back on the farm with his brother Henry (Jason Clarke), Henry’s wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their curmudgeon father Pappy (Jonathan Banks).
Living in the racism fueled Mississippi Delta, his family resides and works on the McAllan land, Ronsel has his own problems adapting to life in a homeland where his colour makes him a second-class citizen. As Jamie and Ronsel form a friendship bonded by their war experiences, the harsh realities of the land the fought so valiantly for sets in.
A sweeping period piece rich in emotion and pain, Mudbound is a powerful examination of friendship, family and race relations in America. While the use of multiple narrators throughout the film works to its disadvantage, offering somewhat of an episodic feel to the piece, it is the Rees’ measured direction that draws the viewer into each of the stories at play.
The friendship between Jamie and Ronsel is the heart of the film, but the blood that keeps it pumping is the subplots involving Laura dealing with both the grueling upkeep of the farm and her feelings for Jamie; and the impact that Hap Jackson’s (Rob Morgan is brilliant in the role) injury has on the rest of the Jackson clan. Within these stories Rees paints a vibrant portrait of individuals trying to make the best out of the unfortunate hand life has given them.
Their skin colours may be different but, within the muddy farm land that serves as a metaphor for America’s racial history, the McAllans and Jacksons are more a like than society wants to admit. It is the poetic, uncomfortable, and gut-wrenching way Rees coveys this poignant message that makes Mudbound such a riveting film.