Review: Mudbound

Score: A-

Director: Dee Rees

Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan

Running Time: 134 Minutes

Rated: R

Sprawling, tragic and well-crafted, Mudbound is one of the best movies of the year.

Based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel, the film tells the stories of two families working on the same farm: the white McAllans, who own the land, and the black Jacksons, who work as tenants on it. Though neither would be considered wealthy, the gulf between them is vast.

The film doesn’t always mesh gracefully, with narration from no less than six characters, sometimes overlapping. But each character is fully realized, with lived-in performances to match.

Jason Clarke and Garrett Hedlund play brothers Henry and Jamie, respectively. Henry has married Laura (Carey Mulligan), who’s used to the comforts of city life, and moved their family to rural Mississippi. Jamie has gone on to be a fighter pilot, shooting down Nazi planes. Jonathan Banks plays the brothers’ hideously racist father.

Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige play Hap and Florence, the couple renting fields on the McAllan’s farm. They’ve got three kids who they desperately want to move beyond their meager existence. Their oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) is a tank commander in Germany.

Both families encounter the harsh economic realities of eking out an existence on a farm with rudimentary equipment, where a long rain can wipe out an entire year’s living in a few days. But it’s clear the Johnsons have it much worse. When Hap breaks his leg, it throws the entire family’s financial stability into question.

Things get even more tense when Jamie and Ronsel return from war. Haunted by what they’ve seen and angry that life will never go back the way it was, they become close friends, sharing war stories and bottles of whiskey. But this being the 1940s, both families caution them against their camaraderie. Yet they ignore these warnings, because the only one who understands what they’ve been through is the other.

Director Dee Rees focuses a lot on texture in Mudbound: dirt caked under fingernails, rusted-out trucks, filthy clothes. But she gets even more out of the actors. All their emotions feel authentic, even and especially when they’re agonizing. Rees doesn’t shy away from grisly images of soldiers being shot in the head, a broken leg with the bone sticking out, or an absolutely brutal torture scene. But it’s all for effect, specific to those scenes. While the film has a feeling of tragedy throughout, it’s not overwhelming in the same way, say, 12 Years a Slave is.

Mudbound is absolutely vital, not just as historical fiction, but sadly as a testament to how little progress we’ve made as a society in 70 years. While it will be available on Netflix, it deserves to be seen on the big screen. This is a level up for Rees, and for many of the actors involved.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.

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