A period tale of two families directed by Pariah’s Dee Rees, Mudbound is a vivid, visceral drama that explores how World War II changed the racial dynamics in the deep South. We first meet the McAllan family in Memphis: They’re lead by gruff, ambitious patriarch Henry (Jason Clarke), who quickly becomes frustrated when the move to the Mississippi Delta fails to go as planned. Even less thrilled is his young wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), who’s missing Memphis and very possibly Henry’s dashing brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), who’s become a pilot.
It’s an engaging potential love triangle, but the story intensifies as the McAllans are obliged to interact with their new neighbors, an African-American family, the Jacksons. As weather, isolation, farming matters and health issues enforce an uncomfortable mutual dependency, the dynamic between the two clans increases in complexity. Mary J. Blige is terrific as Florence Jackson, the mother forced to leave her own children behind to look after those of another, and she and Mulligan share revealing scenes, as do Clarke and Rob Morgan as Florence’s husband, Hap.
If actor Jonathan Banks—playing Henry’s father, a vile racist—brings volatility to these family dynamics, it’s the charismatic Jason Mitchell who delivers depth as Florence’s son Ronsel. A veteran of the European campaign, his combat in Germany compares favorably to his treatment back home. It’s enough to make him wonder who his enemies really are, a paradox played with real sensitivity by the Straight Outta Compton breakout star.
Based on Hillary Jordan’s novel, Mudbound—co-adapted on the page by Rees and Virgil Williams—is emotive but unsentimental: Traversing it feels as authentically gunky as the muddy swamps in which it is set. At 134 minutes, the film may seem challengingly long, but the strength of its ensemble cast and unusually evolving narrative results in a satisfying watch that’s reminiscent of tucking in with an engrossing book.