Mudbound might have been a solid NBC Sunday movie back when such things existed, or, better, a cable show several episodes long. At just over two hours Mudbound has the problems common to such productions: a “Meanwhile, back at…” chronology, performances without arcs that come off wooden, a predictable rhythm. But it has virtues too, including a strong sense of place, the camera work by Rachel Morrison (the South shot as an endless bog), and Jason Mitchell as the young black draftee who after getting warped by service in World War II’s European theater returns to a South that pretends the service didn’t exist.
For no particular reason the film begins in flashback: Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and his brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) struggling with burying their father’s coffin in torrential rain. Echoes of As I Lay Dying, of course, but about the only thing this adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel has in common with William Faulkner’s rumination on Southern guilt is point of view multiplicity. Closer in spirit is The Southerner, Jean Renoir’s great 1945 film about farmers having a go at it in hostile terrain. But that film succeeded because Renoir and screenwriter Faulkner treated its characters as types; they were alive like figures in a pop-up book. Mudbound, alas, treats itself as a Serious Movie following well-worn Oscar tropes. “He was my rescuer from my life on the margins,” Laura intones in voice-over. She marries Henry, and because Carey Mulligan plays Laura we know she’s in for trouble. From the start thy are sexually incompatible and she learns to recoil from his weakness – he’s too easily suckered by in-laws, shysters, and that horrible father, Pappy (Breaking Bad‘s Jonathan Banks), seen in that flashback. Incompetent or not, Henry at least is as racist as his neighbors in Marietta. On that farm live the Jacksons, sharecroppers led by Hap (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige, Oscar-nominated), miserably eking out an existence dependent on the mercies of the McAllens.
This is where the literalism of director Dee Rees’ approach sinks the material. By cutting frantically between the Jacksons and McAllens as if the families were equally important, Rees implies that a cycle of poverty dependent on the weather and exacerbated by the quotidian evil of Southern racism traps both families. I haven’t read Jordan’s novel, let me admit, but I call nonsense. The friendship between Ronsell Jackson and fellow PTSD survivor Jamie blooms as a kind of heterosexual Romeo and Juliet, making the town turn their heads everywhere they go, is the device by which the screenwriters connect the families in bonds of intimacy, but as charming as Hedlund is playing the rascal – he and Florence also engage in a movie-length flirtation – it’s unconvincing. Simply put, Ronsell would not have even dared to ride in the front seat with Jamie. In 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodward, Jr. had his eyes gouged out by a white sheriff and his deputies days after receiving his discharge papers. While Mudbound acknowledges the routine violence perpetuated by Pappy and his type, the casual racism of a dull, stupid man like Henry, and the reality that a black man with ambition – James Baldwin, say – must leave his own country to find self-respect, its structural equivalences undermines the bleakness of its conclusions.
Yet I can’t disregard the details over which Dee Rees pauses with an attention that comes from lived or shared experience: Florence breaking the smallest piece from a chocolate bar Ronsel gives her as a gift, intending to make this gift as long as necessary; the casualness with which Jamie lets his arm rest on Ronsel’s shoulders. Mudbound disappoints because I wanted more from the material onscreen, not less.