It’s fitting that Netflix has picked up the distribution rights to Dee Rees’ sprawling, yet intimate, American epic, Mudbound. Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams adapt Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel of the same name, and the novelistic pacing and structure suit the binging mentality of the streaming giant. Netflix Originals are rarely punished for having slower sections, and Mudbound may find an added level of success when treated as a miniseries-type commitment, as opposed to appointment viewing on the big screen.
The film features a highly effective framing device. It opens in the late 1940s with brothers Henry (Jason Clarke) and Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) calling on their black farmhand, Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), to assist them burying their father in the fields of Henry’s Mississippi farm. So begins a film-long flashback to before the war to tell the story of two families: Henry moving his wife and children to the farm while Jamie goes off to war, and Hap dealing with the new owners while his eldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), is away fighting. Although, it’s when the two young men return that the film really starts to build to its powerful conclusion.
Hedlund and Mitchell make for an excellent duo, and Rees’ handling of their troubled readjustment echoes William Wyler’s work in the 1946 classic The Best Years of Our Lives, albeit with the benefit of 70 years of social progress. Bonded by their experiences, their friendship is extremely moving. Mitchell, in particular, excels as a man who experiences some sense of racial parity in Europe, only to return to a regressive South.
Jonathan Banks, so memorable as fixer-to-the-stars Mike Ehrmantraut in both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, makes for a terrific antagonist as the McAllan’s father Pappy, although nothing can prepare for the pure evil in his soul. It’s clever work by Rees. All the evidence suggests that Pappy’s a despicable character, but liberal-mindedness struggles to comprehend the depths of his darkness. The raw, outrageous power of the resulting scenes left me seething.
For a film that crosses state lines and journeys to the western front, Rees’ camera remains tight on her characters, avoiding obvious vista shots. It rings of budgetary compromise, but, thanks to her commitment, makes for an effective stylistic choice. Both Jamie and Ronsel lose friends on the frontline and, normally, the film may suffer from barely meeting these casualties. However, the characters’ loss is tangible because Rees places her camera right in the cockpit with them and the viscera achieves an emotional resonance on its own. Likewise, the stateside sections circumvent easy (and often exploitative) shots of the twisted beauty of the cotton fields.
Narrative voice is passed proudly as a torch. This includes, thankfully, narration from the female characters. Carey Mulligan is somewhat underused here as Henry’s wife, though she fully commits to the chapters Rees and Williams give her. Mary J. Blige is also strong as Hap’s wife, but there’s no getting around the fact that this is a man’s story: for it’s their cocksure warmongering that dominates the history books. However, the hints at the impending women’s liberation movement don’t go unnoticed. The ensemble leaves Rees balancing multiple subplots throughout the film, and a few tend towards soap opera, but this is a film that ultimately benefits from its poetic flourishes.
In the earliest scenes, Rees hints at the shifting perspectives to come. The African American band playing at a white party is subtly given more genuine attention than the clichéd horn-tooting close-ups of decades of cinematic jazz club bands. Rees scans the hands of the pianist, admiring his artistry and the resulting music feels like more than mere accompaniment. It feels like a pulse. Mudbound plays the game and begins with a white man, but, throughout the course of an epic tale, it arrives at a moving destination. While the second half is the film’s strongest, Rees’ ambitious film captures the same sweeping spark as so many great American novels.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.