Thursday, November 30, 2017
MUDBOUND (Dee Rees, 2017)
In MUDBOUND two families in the Mississippi delta farm the land, often with a great deal of difficulty, but while there is much they have in common in post-World War II America, their races make profound differences in how their lives unfold. Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) moves his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), their two daughters, and his racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks), from Memphis flush with the expectations of what being a landowner will bring. They soon are faced with the hard reality that the grueling labor and stark living conditions aren’t entirely what Henry had in mind when he purchased the property. Nearby with a wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and three children is Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), a tenant farmer who wishes to own the land that his descendants worked as slaves.
Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) enlist when the time comes for the United States to enter the Second World War, and both come back seeing things differently. Ronsel has become accustomed to being treated more equally. He also leaves behind a German woman for whom he was great affection and seems restless back home. Jamie is haunted by the death he witnessed in wartime and often gets drunk to assuage the pain. The two bond over what they saw and did in the European theater even as such chumminess draws negative attention from the locals.
MUDBOUND’s screenplay by Virgil Williams and director Dee Rees fluidly shifts among perspectives through weary narration stained with the disappointment and bitterness that colors the day-to-day realities and futures for these characters. All wish for something better but know that they seem doomed to be stuck in the mire.
Racism exerts a strong pull on what transpires, and MUDBOUND demonstrates how it destroys through overt and less obvious guises. Pappy’s virulent strain of hatred is the most appalling and easiest to condemn. Its consequences for those he targets and his own corroded soul are readily apparent. Rees also shows how a quieter, less loud form of racism tips the power dynamic. Henry does not make explicit threats or direct disgusting comments toward Hap and his wife, yet they know that if they don’t heed his requests, he won’t continue to ask nicely. Their interests are subservient to his, whether it’s jeopardizing their health or taking leave from their family to attend to his.
While MUDBOUND observes that the muck in this mindset drags everyone down, it also spots the potency of shared experiences to foster understanding that breaks down barriers. Hedlund and Mitchell give the richest performances, in part because their characters breach what separates the others.