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Mudbound Is a Too-Talky but Powerful Southern Gothic (AFI Fest Review)

By Luke Y. Thompson

Mudbound Is a Too-Talky but Powerful Southern Gothic (AFI Fest Review)

Mudbound is as good an example as you need for why diversity behind the camera matters. Because if you're any kind of movie fan, you've already seen the "racism and family strife in the South post World War II" drama, and you think you know how it goes, but that's probably because you're used to seeing it from the heroic, benevolent white male point of view. Dee Rees is neither white nor male, and her portrait of two families -- the principal one being a white family who buy a farm and find it harder to run than they thought -- emphasizes the "fail" in "noble failure." Where typically you'd expect an against-all-odds redemption arc from ostensible protagonist Henry MacAllan (Jason Clarke), who sacrifices everything in the hope of success, Rees views him from the point of view of the black family forced to do his every bidding, and his deeply unsatisfied wife Laura (Carey Mulligan). Rather than a heroic head of the family, he emerges as a portrait of pathetic compromise and emotional neglect. Hell, you're actively rooting for her Laura to cheat on Henry with his perpetually drunk, PTSD-addled brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund).

Henry is the character who sets the plot in motion, but we're more aware than ever that in this kind of situation, he gets to do that because he's a well-off white guy. He probably even thinks he's a decent sort, too, never questioning whether summoning servant Hap (Rob Morgan) at any hour of the day or night might be an inconvenience. The Jackson family, fronted by Hap and Florence (an impressively de-glammed Mary J. Blige) are only permitted to be reactive, but even as they're left unable to say no to any MacAllan whim, we see the pain behind the scenes and in their inner monologues. And racism isn't their only problem: injury, poverty, and son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) fighting the war in Europe are ever-present worries.

Showing multiple perspectives is generally important and good, but Rees does get too bogged down in it at first. The script, written by Rees and Virgil Williams, feels too beholden to the Hillary Jordan novel on which it's based: lots of internal monologue that's unnecessary with a cast this expressive, and constant shifts of whose story we're following...these are things that can work well in a book, but require a bit more adaptation in cinema. If you can hang in there through the first half of the movie, it gets more on-point and less voice-overy as tensions build. But like Blade Runner, this is a movie that could probably be improved by taking narration out completely. On the page, a character might need several paragraphs to convey a feeling that Rob Morgan can get across in one stare or grimace. There's maybe one moment in the whole movie that it truly enhances...and that's the final scene, so maybe you can't just get rid of the device completely. Still, it hinders.

But hang with it you will, because you know something bad's coming -- Mudbound begins with Jamie and Henry trying to dig a grave for their rotten, bigoted father (familiar character actor Jonathan Banks), and nearly drowning in rain and a six foot hole because Henry won't let his dad be buried anywhere near a slave's remains. Then we see a second try, and Henry ordering Hap to help him with a coffin, despite an allusion to something bad having happened recently to his son. The rest of the story is mostly flashback from there, something Rees thankfully does not feel the need to emphasize, since most viewers will figure it out eventually. Pappy, after all, is a significant character, albeit a thin one: he's a racist with no shred of humanity or any thoughts beyond hating black people and remembering the time he killed one.

Literal rain and mud surrounds the characters, but the real Mississippi mud is the legacy of slavery, and how it persisted as a de facto state of affairs some eight decades after having been legally banned. And while its most immediate effect is to subdue the black workers, it's a poison to the white folk as well who engage in varying degrees of self-destruction, from booze to familial abuse, none of which can be salved by making another human bow to one's will.

It's easy to look at Pappy and say, "Thankfully, I'm not like that and nor is anyone I know." It's harder at look honestly at Henry and ask how he can be doing better...or if you can. Mudbound doesn't need to make any obvious connection to today to make its point, but in ultimately finding a shred of hope even in those terrible times, it can perhaps point a way forward even while depicting a dreadful throwback.

Images: Netflix