AFI Fest 2017: Mudbound, by David Bax
Mudbound is not just a clever name for Dee Rees’ extraordinary new film. Rain and the thick, brown, sticky slop that ensues are a constant presence. In the opening scene, which we’ll soon learn is a flash-forward, two brothers (Jason Clarke and Garrett Hedlund) are attempting to dig a grave, inter their father’s body and get the hole filled in before the storm arrives. Of course, they don’t succeed. Who ever does?
Mudbound is a sprawling story but the gist of it is that a Memphis couple, Henry and Laura (Clarke and Carey Mulligan) buy a farm in Mississippi in the early 1940s. Their lives soon become entangled with those of the Jackson family (Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan play mother and father Florence and Hap) sharecroppers who rent a parcel of the land. Things only become more complicated when Henry’s brother (Hedlund) and Florence and Hap’s oldest son, Ronsel (Straight Outta Compton‘s Jason Mitchell) return from the war and discover the experiences they have in common outstrip their racial differences.
Rees tackles her many narratives by granting voiceover narration to multiple characters (Hedlund, Mulligan, Morgan, Blige, etc.). Not only does this give the viewer a detailed overview of the layered plots, it also allows for inspired digressions. In one stunning sequence, Mulligan’s Laura reflect on how “violence is part and parcel of life in the country) and lays out in grisly, matter-of-fact steps the process of raising, slaughtering, cleaning and cooking your own meat.
Moreover, the separation of characters and storylines into pieces turns the films various narrative elements into sections of an orchestra, which Rees can conduct one at a time or in combinations to build her symphony. The structure thus isn’t rigid but lights from piece to piece according to its own rhythms and melodies. We’ll go from individual riffs on gender and domestic roles to crescendoes in which black and white, warfront and homefront play across the screen nearly simultaneously.
Mudbound is by no means a light or airy film, though. The sick-making realities of war and of racial turmoil are not overlooked. But above all, and without resorting to disingenuous platitudes, Rees chooses to direct our attention toward fraternity and hope. For all its dire turns, this is what makes Mudbound great. The rain will come and we’ll be bogged down in the mud but, if we so choose, we can pull each other out while we’re waiting for the sun to shine again.