It’s getting to that time of year when rumblings are made about potential Oscar material and it must be said that some of those rumblings have already been directed towards Mudbound. This slow burning historical drama, co-written and directed by Dee Rees and based upon a novel by Hillary Jordan, certainly features the kind of material that often attracts those all-important votes. The fact that it’s a Netflix Original will doubtless cloud the waters somewhat, but the film has received a limited theatrical release (presumably to ensure that it can be considered eligible for such awards), despite the fact that it’s ready to stream right now for anyone willing to stump up their monthly subscription.
The Second World War is in full swing and, with so many able-bodied men away from home, Laura (Carey Mulligan), already in her mid-thirties, finds herself in danger of being left an ‘old maid’. So she’s pleased when she meets up with Henry McCallan (Jason Clarke), a small town businessman with big ambitions, who throws an agreeable look in her direction and hits paydirt. He promptly introduces Laura to his younger, more handsome brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and it’s evident from the outset that the two of them are instantly attracted to each other, but Laura and Henry marry nonetheless and shortly afterwards start a family. One day, Henry casually announces that he’s purchased a farm in Mississippi (as you do) and that the McCallums will soon be relocating there. Oh yes, one other thing. They will also be taking along Harry’s widower father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks of Breaking Bad fame). Pappy proves to have all the inherent charm of a grizzly bear with a bad case of hemorrhoids, but Laura decides that she’ll just have to try and make the best of things. Suffering is something she clearly has an aptitude for.
Once in Mississippi, the McCallums discover that Henry has been duped. The palatial home they expected to occupy actually belongs to somebody else and they must make the best of a dilapidated shotgun shack on the farm. They will also be the employers of a black family that works the land – Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their many children. From this point, a life of utter misery ensues for pretty much everyone in the story and matters become more complicated when Jamie decides to join the air force and the Jackson’s oldest boy, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), enlists in a tank battalion. Both men endure terrible experiences in the war, but ironically, for Ronsel at least, he is finally free of the Jim Crow laws that still hold sway in rural Mississippi. For the first time in his life, he is treated as an equal.
When the war finishes and the two men return to their respective families, it’s hard for Ronsel to accept that he must once again resume his former position in life – he can no longer even use the front door of his local general store. Traumatised by their shared experiences, Ronsel and Jamie strike up an unlikely friendship – but of course, in this bigoted world, white men and black men are not permitted to be friends – and when word of Ronsel’s adventures in Europe are accidentally made public, there is a terrible price to pay…
If Mudbound occasionally feels a little ponderous, there’s no denying the power of the narrative and the importance of the film’s inherent message. Its penultimate act is as gripping as it is devastating. There are also some nice performances here (Blige seems to be getting most of the Oscar-buzz but Banks’ portrait of a racist, misogynistic scumbag is also chillingly memorable). With its glacially slow pace and unusual attention to areas that don’t usually receive the opportunity of screen time, perhaps the film is actually more suited to being viewed on the small screen, where it’s something you can take a short break from and come back to.
Oscars? Well, if I’m honest, there are already several films I would deem more deserving of next year’s awards, but this isn’t at all bad and it certainly goes a long way to dispel the notion that Netflix are only interested in financing mindless entertainment. Mudbound is a long way from that. Interested parties can check it out at the click of a button – or the eagle-eyed might even spot one of those rare cinematic showings.