Director Dee Rees made quite a wave when she released her debut feature Pariah in 2011. That film, which focused on a black lesbian teen trying to navigate friendship, sexuality and her interest in poetry, was major and immediate. And so, it made sense when Rees was attached to Mudbound. The film is an adaptation of Hillary Jordan's 2008 novel, a historical fiction focused on two families.
One of those families is the McAllans. They are white landowner farmers, constantly tussling with their hostile Mississippi land and the unpredictable weather. Laura (Carey Mulligan) struggles to find fleeting freedoms and moments of happiness between her domestic duties, finding herself confined to a difficult life in which she spends much of her time trying to calm her husband Henry (Jason Clarke) or, even worse, his father ‘Pappy' (Jonathan Banks).
Nearby are the Jacksons, a black family who are still renting their land despite Hap's (Rob Morgan) best efforts. The Jacksons are very close, but are forced into conflicts of their own due to living in 1940s America. Post-war Mississippi is full of racial animosity and tension, making it a difficult place for any black family to survive. Those hardships are only worsened by the arrival of the McAllans, as the two families soon find their lives intertwining.
Mudbound can be quite frustrating. While it is certainly not a bad film, it never reaches its potential. Its cast is very strong, full of sturdy performances which lend intimacy to its characters… but those characters lack definition. Pappy, for example, is poorly written to the point of becoming a caricature, taking away from the genuine evil of many of his actions. Its cinematography, by Rachel Morrison, is distinctive, stylish and gorgeous. In fact, it was good enough to see Morrison become the first woman to be nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar. But Mudbound‘s editing lacks rhythm, lessening the impact of those shots as there isn't enough time spent with them.
The viewer is constantly held at an arm's distance from the text, trying to involve themselves but struggling to do so because of the film's flaws. This makes a well made, formally impressive film unsatisfying. Mudbound has fantastic, poignant moments, particularly in its second half, but they never make the impact that they should because the viewer is distracted by, for example, the very clearly cheaply produced war sequences which cannot hide their low budget. A strong scene, such as the film's closing sequence, is dragged down by what surrounds it.
Still, there are fascinating ideas at play. Beyond the racial conflicts, Rees explores frictions between tradition and modernism, forgiveness and hatred, heroism and villainy. Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams do well to find points of interest in a complicated narrative, and it is those quality ideas that make the film so frustrating. The brilliance here is often met with mediocrity soon after. For every memorable element, there is one that feels out of place or under-cooked.
Mudbound will be released by The Criterion Collection on February 12th