In terms of provocation, Beuys could certainly provoke viewers into reading a book on its subject instead.
Dee Rees’ long-anticipated follow-up to her breakthrough indie hit “Pariah” premiered at Sundance on Saturday night to a crowd abuzz with hope that it would deliver on its potential. To say that it does exactly that would be a severe understatement. This is a sprawling, ambitious drama, filled with multiple character viewpoints and arcs, and yet always so confidently conveyed that one never loses the humanity at its core. It is a film with gorgeously rendered production details that still feels lived in—one of those rare films that feels both muddy and violent while also retaining poetry in its visual compositions. And it is a work with great performances from top to bottom, including at least one breakout turn from a young actor who has long displayed potential but reaches another level here. However, this is Rees’ movie. It is so confidently directed at every turn, transporting viewers to the Mississippi Delta in the ‘40s in a way that we’ve never really seen before. It’s a remarkable film.
“Mudbound” announces its ambition early, allowing multiple characters to narrate their intertwined stories. We hear from Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), a shy woman swept off her feet by the ambitious Henry (Jason Clarke), who takes her to a barely-surviving farm on which it always seems to be raining. We hear from Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), who is blindingly suave in early scenes but brought down by his time as an aerial fighter in World War II. Jamie returns a broken, alcoholic man, but Laura can still see the good in him. Another young man survives Nazi Germany only to be greeted by poverty and racism when he returns—Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), the eldest son of a family who has worked the lands on the McAllan’s farm for generations. We even hear from Ronsel’s parents, Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan & Mary J. Blige), leaders of a family trying to eke out a few acres of their own in a time when “land” has a different meaning than “dirt”—the former being something you own, the latter something you work.
Based on a book by Hillary Jordan, “Mudbound” is a multi-character, multi-year drama, but Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams never lose the cohesiveness of it all. It could have gotten so messy and unfocused, but even as it’s shifting time periods, perspectives, and settings, Rees maintains the throughline. It is multiple stories, coming together to tell one story. It is a film about family, alcoholism, PTSD, racism, and how fighting for the American Dream in this country, especially in the South in the ‘40s, came with different rules depending on the color of your skin. It is an inherently powerful story, but it is the confident way that Rees conveys it that allows it to connect. This is a film that could have been a generic period drama, but never feels that way.
One of the reasons it doesn’t is a technical team that finds ways to blend the poetic and the realistic. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison (“Fruitvale Station”) has a remarkable eye, whether she’s capturing the sunlight on the farm or the shadows in the McAllan and Jackson homes. And the production and costume design feels genuine instead of like the “period movie dress-up” we so often see. It’s also a class in editing, keeping the various characters and plot threads consistently engaging and never allowing them to get tangled.
Rees also clearly works wonderfully with actors, as every performance, down to the smallest ones, works here, some unforgettably. Hedlund is charming and believable in every beat—whether it’s the smooth-talking guy that Laura first meets or the mess who comes home from Germany. Mitchell, Blige, Morgan, Mulligan—there’s not a bad performance in the film; in fact there are several great ones.
There’s an argument to be made that there’s almost too much story in “Mudbound.” Even at 132 minutes, it’s so dense with plotting, characters, and jumps in time that one can almost feel overwhelmed by it all. And yet Rees never loses her grip on the material. She has gone from one of our more promising filmmakers to one who has completely fulfilled that promise with just this singular, fantastic film.
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