Movie Review

Mudbound (2017) by Dee Rees

Original Name: Mudbound

Director: Dee Rees

Runtime: 134 minutes

Language: English

IMDB Link:

Dee Rees: Rees was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in New York. Rees is a lesbian, and she described her debut Pariah as semi-autobiographical. Pariah went on to win numerous awards and also earned Dee a spot on the New York Times’ 10 Directors to Watch list in 2013.

I was drawn to the multiple points of view – specifically the inner monologues are what I found most interesting, versus the dialogue between characters. I wanted to make this balance and give it a story of two families. It’s a dark symbiotic relationship showing how they’re both connected to each other because of trauma, because of disinheritance, feelings of economic disparity, motherhood – and also, they’re rooted to the land. They’re all stuck in the muck.

Dee Rees has crafted a moving multi-layered story about the two families, one black (the Jackson’s), one white (the McAllen’s), that intervene many themes together, chief among them the root that tie them as a home and the racial tension, and mostly succeed in all those. Dee Rees, along with Ava DuVernay, prove as leading figures for African-American women voice (which is already rare enough. For Rees’ case, she also represents the LGBT community). Mudbound is one of the few films that I consider a very American movie, not because it can only be made in the America, but because it tells a tale in a specific period and setting of an American history. Dirt plays like a character on its own and has a significant role in the story. The cinematography successfully brings a real sense of this murky field, without being too washed-out. The story starts literally with these soils, as the McAllen family digs a hole to bury their father. As the title suggests, dirt is land. It represents the very ground, the root bounded by the debt of the land, and to a larger extend, the root of American society.

It’s one of the rare time where the narrations work in service for the themes of the story. We have narrations from 6 different perspectives, 3 from each family and they pair the the two families up as well (I’ll get to that later). These voice-overs remind a great deal to those of Terrence Malick’s movies, but here it works in conjunction with the theme. “If you asked me before, I could’ve told you that all white people are the same”, says Florence, the women figure in the black family. And it speaks very well the overall tone of Mudbound. Each character provides different voices, different shades to the story regarding how they deal with racial issues and how they regard themselves within this society, and how they regard the land they live as their home.

At first layer we have Henry and Hap, who are the breadwinners for their respective family, but find themselves in a difficult situation where they can’t provide enough for the family. Hap (Rob Morgan) gets his leg broken and is forced to rest for weeks, Harry (Jason Clarke) is scammed and then forced to take him and the family live together with the poorness of black people, where they can take a bath only once on Friday. Hap takes pride of the field he and his older generations spent their lives working at, whereas Hap sees the land as something to bring food on the table. Then we have second layer of Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Florence (unrecognizable Mary J Blige) who share a mutual feeling about being a mother, and a wife in this land, where black mothers “don’t have a luxury of only lovin’ their own children”. The plot thread where Laura miscarriages, for example, speaks well to this theme. And finally, as the deepest layer we have a friendship between Jamie (played wonderfully by Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), both are WWII vets who find themselves a stranger of the place they live, and whose equal friendship doesn’t bode well with the reception of this village.

All these themes keep building up and tangling together into a brutal and compelling climax. It might seem the movie is too busy with an ensemble cast and way too many themes, but in truth, Mudbound does this story justice with great acting all around, the excellent cinematography (by Rachel Morrison, the first woman ever nominated for an Oscar in that category) and effective editing where the movie switches back and forth several times between the gangs at home and the boys at war without losing its rhythm. If I have to give this movie some criticisms, however, it’s that Harry was simply written out at the climax; the story of a white girl whom eventually stab his cheated husband feels weak and lastly, for a character with not much narrative focus, the old man Pappy (Jonathan Banks) has an important role in that climax that I would love to see the film deals more with him. The said climax, although raw and brutal, feels strangely relevant, not only to the story, not only to that period piece but even to the world we live in now. Dee Rees brings this thoughtful adaptation into light, a story about land, a story about racism and a story about wounds. And the wounds are deeply felt.