Dee Rees’ Mudbound presents a fascinating study of race in the States, from the perspective of a soldier returning home from war. It’s a unique means of exploring prejudice, chronicling the journey of a man who helped to defeat a fascist dictator, only to then be subject to hatred from his own compatriots. War may unite people fighting on the same side – but here’s a man who returned to a nation that segregates them.
Our tale begins with the coming together of Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and Laura (Carey Mulligan) who marry – despite the fact the latter seems far better suited to her husband’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). With two daughters to care for, Laura enjoys the domestic lifestyle – until they buy a farm, where she shares a modest sized abode with her family, which includes her racist father-in-law Pappy (Jonathan Banks).
Working on the farm are the Jackson family, and parents Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige) have to wave goodbye to their eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) as he sets off to Belguim to fight in the Second World War. He falls in love, and finds himself treated like an equal human being in Europe – only to return home to barbarity from the locals, reminded once again of the disdain shown towards the black community in the States. Befriending Jamie – who also fought in the war – the pair bond over the PSTD they suffer from, though as they get closer, the white locals get angrier.
After the film’s opening scene – depicting the burial of Pappy, with the rain mercilessly beating down on his two sons, we get a sense that something quite bad is going to happen, adding a vital foreboding element to proceedings, as we patiently await tragedy to strike. The film has a somewhat sprawling opening act too, as the narration passes hands, as all of the film’s most important characters conduct monologues, emblematic of a feature devoid of any true protagonist – almost similar, in that regard, to Detroit. The screenplay is easily the best thing about Mudbound too, as there’s a certain poetry to the dialogue, not just in the narration, but through conversation too, with much credit going to writers Virgil Williams and Rees, for being so concise and eloquent at the same time.
But the aforementioned lack of any true leading role is to the film’s detriment, as a title that needs somebody we can emotionally invest in, a character for us to embody. Lacking focus, we spend too much time in plot-lines that aren’t significant, nor consequential enough. The entire opening act studies the romantic narrative concerning Laura and Henry – but the film is so much interesting when we eventually address Ronsel’s tale, as the standout character who should be the palpable protagonist. It’s his journey we should follow, from the farm to Belgium and back again. This is his story, and the film would be much better had it focused on telling it.