Mud clings to the boots, it cakes onto cloth and fabric—and sometimes it can even feel like it globs onto your spirit. Mud is hard to wash completely away: There are still granular specks after you shower, the grains seemingly forever attached, becoming a part of your body, of you and your history with it. In her new film Mudbound, Dee Rees makes the assertion that trauma is like mud in the way it sticks to us like glue, how it binds us together, almost a shared cultural language. Framed like a family epic examining the dynamics between half a dozen characters, Rees’s film slowly sprawls, settled in mud.
The film really does sprawl, taking its sweet time to map out the lives of the white McAllan family—once somewhat well-to-do until patriarch Henry (Jason Clarke) is hoodwinked into buying a rural Mississippi shack in lieu of a middle class home—and the African American Jackson family, who only want to plant their own lives in the South. Both families have members returning from World War II: Henry’s brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and the son of Jackson heads Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige), Ronsel (Jason MItchell). Jamie struggles to reconnect with his brother, is estranged from his father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), and the dynamic he shares with Henry’s wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), tiptoes around increasingly treacherous territory. The only person left with whom Jamie can connect, who has any idea of what he went through in war, is Ronsel.
Mudbound often feels curious in its scope, diving into the worlds of two families (or one world that’s shared by two families), though the internal monologues of these family members don’t necessarily tell us things we don’t already know or couldn’t easily figure out. Mudbound’s is a large and cumbersome story not because of the complicated dynamics it presents, but because of the way they’re presented, with a lot of opportunity to explore the complexity between characters, but little of those opportunities are constructively used, perhaps because there is too much material on hand. It’s strange, because the adaptation, by Rees and Virgil Williams and based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, ostensibly gives us enough space with everyone to get a sense of their personality (if, primarily, because the running time clocks in at two hours and 14 minutes): We spend a lot of screen time with these characters, in other words. Still, in spite of the palpable regret, loss and frustration that characterize the characters’ lives, an odd texturelessness takes hold of how they act. Rees focuses on the quotidian aspects of these people, but the aspects rarely register as meaningfully as they should, at least enough to make Jamie and Ronsel’s interactions stand out for more reason than that their friendship is “unlikely.”
The two form a bond over their shared trauma from war, their flashbacks not unlike complementary dreams. Hedlund is a perfectly capable performer, but it’s Mitchell who imbues his role with urgency and electricity. The two have a magnetic appeal, surely aided by Rees’s direction and cinematographer Rachel Morrison, but one wonders if Rees is able to make these scenes feel as nerve-pinching as they do because of our expectations for such historical dramas centering around race. The suspense Rees conjures derives from that wondering, from the anticipation, as a friend said to me after the screening, “for when the other shoe will drop.”
The question the film may pose might be: To what degree are Jamie’s and Ronsel’s individual experiences and privileges, or lack thereof, a hindrance to their friendship? Should such privilege be an obstacle at all? These are tough questions, and any answer is sure to catalyze a strong reaction. Argue that their friendship “transcends race” and you might end up erasing the fundamental differences in the ways they’ve experienced life and how it informs how the two act toward one another. Ronsel is hardly quick to be friendly to Jamie, and several times Jamie pulls pranks on Ronsel that, had the two not known each other, could have been preludes to horrible things.
But say that their racial identities and respective perspectives are fundamentally informative of their friendship, and you might be at risk of not finding the alleged universality of their fraternal interactions. Hierarchical lines of power are supposed to obviously steer these scenes—or at least the way an audience might approach these scenes—but the film, and by extension Rees, is fidgety as far as placing such a dynamic in focus, almost as if she’s unwilling to lean towards one clear idea of what their races mean for one another, toward any answer for the question her film poses.
Rees is, nonetheless, at her strongest when trying to explore this question, and questions like it, even if her mixed feelings can be unsatisfying. She sometimes seems to want to show the quiet ordinariness of racism, as opposed to the shock and awe of a scene like Pappy screaming racial epithets at Ronsel. At the very least, Rees can dance around a big, uncomfortable question, while letting something just as gutting like Jamie and Ronsel’s PTSD serve as the film’s most potent emotional arc. That kind of trauma, she asserts, sticks to you like mud, whoever you are.
Director: Dee Rees
Writers: Dee Rees, Virgil Williams
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Garrett HEdlund, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jonathan Banks
Release Date: November 17, 2017