This review originally ran January 22, 2017, as part of our Sundance coverage. With Mudbound making its premiere on Netflix on November 17, we’re running it again.
Every year at Sundance, there’s that one movie that becomes the movie everyone talks about. And if you’re here and haven’t seen that movie yet, you are subconsciously shunned by others. You are no longer allowed to participate in the whole, “What is your favorite so far?,” game because you have to preface the answer by admitting you haven’t seen The Big Movie yet. This was me for the 15 hours between when I missed the Mudbound premiere on Saturday evening until I saw it on Sunday morning. And, oh yes, people were correct: This is the movie of Sundance. Like Manchester by the Sea last year, it’s the movie we’ll still be talking at this point in 2018.
In a perfect world, I would have more time to ponder Dee Rees’ Mudbound before writing about it, but good Lord, we know this isn’t a perfect world.
What sticks out to me the most (in a movie with a lot that sticks out) is the relationship between Garrett Hedlund’s Jamie McAllan and Jason Mitchell’s Ronsel Jackson. Both are World War II veterans retiring to Mississippi, their lives changed forever from events during the war.
For the first time, Ronsel, a young black man, experiences a life greeted as a liberator. In Europe, he’s a hero and has a relationship with a local German woman. Jamie, a pilot, comes from a racist family (his father, played by Jonathan Banks, is a member of the KKK), but is saved from certain death by the African American fighting squadron known as the Red Tails. They both return to Mississippi changed men, though Mississippi has not changed.
Ronsel’s family lives and works on a struggling farm run by Jamie’s brother, Henry (Jason Clarke). Henry can be kind, he can also be horrible. He’s not a member of the KKK like his father, but he makes it clear that everyone in his world has their place. He’s married to Laura (Carey Mulligan) and it’s a struggle. Everything is a struggle on this farm.
Ronsel’s parents, Hap and Florence (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige) dream of owning their own land some day, but when Hap breaks his leg in a farming accident, that dream starts to look impossible. It’s about then that Jamie (who by this point is an alcoholic) and Ronsel begin their friendship — a friendship that becomes very dangerous for both of them.
What Dee Rees has done here is remarkable. The themes of racial injustice alone would make this movie “important,” but what she’s done with her film makes it an epic. And epics can fall into the trap of being long-winded and boring, but Mudbound zips along, which is a strange thing to say about a movie set on a farm in the late 1940s.
What Rees does so well with Ronsel and Jamie’s characters is showing us why these two people change, as opposed to telling us. Or just presenting injustice so an audience will say, “well, that’s wrong,” as opposed to being pissed off this is happening to a war hero by these monsters. Rees knows how to get an audience emotionally invested in these characters and the wonderful performances pull us through to the other side.
Mudbound is one of the best movies I’ve seen in the last year. It’s way too early to be talking about Oscars (but I guess I just did anyway), but again, we will be talking about this movie for the next year. The only bad news is that it’s so good, there’s no way people will get to start seeing it outside of film festivals until this fall. But I promise it will be worth the wait.
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