Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 14 min.
Release Date: November 17th, 2017 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Dee Rees Actors: Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jonathan Banks, Kerry Cahill, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucy Faust, Dylan Arnold, Samantha Hoefer
wo brothers, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), the younger one, and Henry (Jason Clarke), the one who is certain that everything he wants to happen surely will, struggle to dig a grave for their father before the rain gets too fierce and night falls. Jamie’s shift nearly ends in disaster when rainwater fills the grave to the point of drowning, though the mission carries on into the morning. But lowering the coffin into the ground can’t be accomplished by the two of them alone.
Jamie begins the film with some narration, reminiscing about his older sibling’s beliefs. But then, Henry’s wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), chimes in with her own narration, suggesting that “Mudbound” might be her story, and not Jamie’s. Indeed, the plot even switches over to her introduction into the family, as she dines with her own brother, whose new boss is Henry. At 31, she feels like an old maid, and desperately seeks his attention and affections, even though she’s uncertain about actually loving him. The timeline shifts back to visualize this event and subsequent interactions, which abruptly transitions away from the burial of the McAllans’ father, which was just about to properly introduce Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), a black sharecropper passing by in a wagon.
In 1941, the U.S. is provoked by Japan with the Pearl Harbor attack, which brings yet a third narrator into the fold – and then a fourth. A young black man goes off to war, commenting on his thoughts during his departure, while his mother edges in to offer her own sorrows about love and loss. By the time the fifth separate narrator speaks up, the damage is done. It may be unique to exhibit so many viewpoints from a spoken, first-person perspective, but it makes for a terribly confused narrative. Who is in charge of relating this tale? This gimmick is eventually misused to the point that one or two-line, inconsequential observations preside like comic strip thought bubbles as characters transition into successional scenes. And, toward the finale, the voiceover narration disappears for a large span of time altogether, making it even more obvious that it was entirely unnecessary.
Henry and Laura soon move from Tennessee to a farm in Mississippi where they can supervise 200 acres of fertile land. But thanks to an unfortunate swindle, the McAllan family, including grouchy Pappy (Jonathan Banks, playing quite the negative force), is compelled to relocate to a farmhouse instead of the sizable main estate. And then the action shifts to Jamie, now a bomber pilot, and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), Hap’s son, stationed inside a tank, as they engage in battles.
Perhaps it’s fitting that if the frames of reference are going to be a mess, the timeline should be jumbled as well. It’s not so problematic when it depicts the contrasts between white farmers and black farmers (life is rough for Laura, who worries about her children and her hygiene, but life is much tougher for Hap’s wife Florence [Mary J. Blige], who tends not only to her own children, but also toils over the farm, finds herself responsible for helping Laura, and must anguish over a host of other concerns – including general mistreatment and deceit by white people). But when it comes to introducing characters, it’s more distracting than efficient.
The stark differences between labor and subsistence for these two families are the main purpose of “Mudbound,” particularly as racial tensions stoke every interaction and conversation. There’s also a hint of “The Best Years of Our Lives” in play, as returning veterans must readapt to existence among civilians (and the profound notion that the horrors of war might be preferable to the hells of intolerance). Race plays such a significant role that it justly overtakes the miseries of increasing poverty or health issues or flagging business or disturbed minds. Correspondingly, little hope or happiness finds its way into this emotionally bereaving picture, which is hurt further by the excessive number of stories, the slow pacing, and the overlong running time. Even the conclusion, which could have had great poignancy, reminds of the terrible decision to use multiple narrators; its power is robbed by the fact that “Mudbound” isn’t solely Ronsel’s account, instead shared by a host of other, lesser personas with unresolved outcomes.
– Mike Massie