Since turning heads with the intoxicating intimacy of her knockout 2009 debut, Pariah, director Dee Rees has been steadily stretching her canvas, first with the stately HBO biopic Bessie, and now with this sprawling treatment of Hillary Jordan's prize-winning 2008 book, Mudbound. It seems an audacious choice to maintain such a literary stamp on the material, right down to the Faulknerian device of multiple narrators, heard in voiceover throughout. But ultimately that's to the benefit of this densely textured, populous narrative, which is given novelistic room to breathe and a slow-burn intensity that builds to a shattering conclusion.
Rees adapted the novel with veteran television writer Virgil Williams, and the material might perhaps have been a more natural fit for multipart cable-drama treatment, with its assembly of two families and their complex web of relationships. But the movie packs a lot in, giving robust dimension to the characters, plot threads and themes that count. Its powerful depiction of simmering racial tensions in the Jim Crow South of the 1940s, exploding into horrific violence, should boost its profile as a prestige release, the drama fueled by sentiments still troublingly relevant in contemporary America.
Carey Mulligan plays Laura, a refined city-bred woman from Memphis who risks the stigma of remaining an old maid at 31. That makes her grateful when Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) responds to her mother's unsubtle hints and begins courting her, even if his proposal is not the romantic rescue she perhaps imagined. There's more of a spark with his dashing ladies'-man brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), but Laura accepts Henry's offer and is content for a time, until he relocates them, together with their two young daughters and Henry's "Pappy" (Jonathan Banks), to a farm he bought on the Mississippi Delta.
The writers make no concession to modern sensibilities in Laura's placid acceptance of decisions in which she has had no part. Rees lets the pre-feminist mores of the time speak for themselves as Laura relishes her domesticity and even concedes to herself that while she gets little pleasure out of sex with Henry, it does make her "feel like a true wife." But Mulligan gives the character backbone in quiet ways, mostly in the questioning intelligence behind her eyes, but also through Laura's independent gestures of kindness, extended without her controlling husband's knowledge.
In her voiceover at the start of the movie, Laura says, "When I think of the farm, I think of mud. I dreamed in brown." That boggy terrain, replenished constantly by the Mississippi downpours, becomes a potent metaphor for Laura's misery in the comfortless farmhouse, and for the irreconcilable divide of a society riven by prejudice. It’s also a frequent element of cinematographer Rachel Morrison's gritty compositions, the land often seeming to cower under brooding skies. Dappled in retro hues, the widescreen frame is filled with painterly images that richly evoke a time and place, as well as capturing the mood of the melancholy drama.
The action parallels the lives of two families, shifting back and forth from the McAllans to the Jacksons, the black sharecroppers who farm cotton on a leased part of the McAllans' land.
While Henry is marginally more evolved in his attitudes than his racist father, a withered husk of a man with nothing but scorn in his heart, he still treats the Jacksons with a curtness tinged with superiority. This rankles family patriarch Hap (Rob Morgan), a preacher and a man of stature cloaked in humility, unable to reconcile the years of backbreaking work on land he will never own. His wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) is no less burdened, but far more pragmatic, accepting a job as Laura's housekeeper and even developing a quiet understanding of her that she never thought possible with a white woman.
When America is thrust into World War II, Jamie becomes a fighter pilot while the Jacksons' eldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), rises to sergeant in an all-black tank battalion. Rees cuts, at times somewhat abruptly, between the families in Mississippi and the two men at war, both of them affected by the loss of buddies. But the major dramatic thrust of this section is the change in Ronsel, who experiences what it's like to be both liberated and a liberator, also exploring a loving relationship with a white German woman.
Both Jamie and Ronsel come home as decorated heroes, but Ronsel's return to Mississippi brings a rude awakening — though he has changed, his country has remained the same, an injustice conveyed by the telling image of him riding in the back of the bus, behind the "Colored" demarcation. An ugly encounter with Pappy McAllan at the local grocery store cements even more bluntly the reality that Ronsel's service to his country has earned him zero respect with certain folks, who continue to fuel a toxic war at home.
Moments of tremendous warmth punctuate the tension, notably a beautiful scene in which Hap reads a letter sent from Ronsel overseas to the family, his younger siblings lighting up with each individual shout-out; and his joyous return, arriving unannounced while grace is being said before dinner. There's also a great deal of heart in the blossoming of a genuine friendship between Ronsel and Jamie, who remains scarred by his experiences in battle. Hitting the booze hard, he butts heads with both his father and his brother, the latter alert to every sign of suspicious closeness between Jamie and Laura.
Rees modulates the sense of foreboding with great skill, aided by the expressive and distinctively varied score of Brooklyn-based multicultural composer Tamar-kali. And while the sorrowful weight of history dictates who will suffer most as racial frictions ignite, the climactic developments unfold with a startling gut-punch impact that elevates the movie through its moving conclusion.
For someone like Rees, who emerged out of the indie scene, Mudbound in many surface ways is an old-fashioned movie, but there's also an invigorating occasional raw edge to its refinement, its graceful visuals punctuated by economic use of handheld camera, notably in scenes with Jamie and Ronsel.
That key relationship is played with a lovely relaxed rapport by Hedlund and Mitchell, their cautious initial assessment of one another giving way to the easy camaraderie of two men uncertain how to navigate their return to civilian life. Mulligan, as always, brings sensitivity and depth to a woman restricted by her circumstances and not free to articulate her unhappiness, while Clarke and Morgan convey the wary distances between Henry and Hap with deft strokes. Breaking Bad vet Banks hold nothing back in making Pappy McAllan a thoroughly despicable figure, but the quiet revelation here is the deglamorized Blige, a model of understatement and careworn dignity in perhaps the singer's most demanding dramatic role to date.
Mudbound requires a taste for leisurely storytelling generally more focused on building careful nuances and layered characters than on big dramatic cymbal clashes. But patient investment pays off in an epic that creeps up on you, its stealth approach laced with intelligence, elegance and an affecting balance of humanity and moral indignation.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: Elevated Films, Joule Films, in association with MACRO Media, Zeal, Black Bear Pictures
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jonathan Banks, Garrett Hedlund
Director: Dee Rees
Screenwriters: Virgil Williams, Dee Rees, based on the novel by Hillary Jordan
Producers: Sally Jo Effenson, Cassian Elwes, Carl Effenson, Charles D. King, Kim Roth, Christopher Lemole, Tim Zajaros
Executive producers: Dan Steinman,Teddy Schwartzman, Jennifer Roth, Poppy Hanks, Dee Rees, Kyle Tekiela, David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri, Virgil Williams, Robert Teitel, George Tillman Jr.
Director of photography: Rachel Morrison
Production designer: David J. Bomba
Costume designer: Michael T. Boyd
Editor: Mako Kamitsuna
Casting: Billy Hopkins, Ashley Ingram
Not rated, 132 minutes