The patch of worn Mississippi farmland where much of Dee Rees’s Mudbound is set connotes an atmosphere of literal and economic devastation. The fertile properties of Mississippi Delta soil are scarcely visible in the modest plant growth that adorns the flat landscapes, which are occasionally dotted with shacks that look as if they were designed with the express purpose of falling apart. This is the sort of place barely fit for human habitation, which in the Jim Crow South inevitably means it’s been set aside for black citizens who continue to work as sharecroppers, saved from redundancy only by the remoteness of their location, a place where tractors and other mechanized farm equipment have yet to reach.
Into this precarious situation comes Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), who uprooted his family from Memphis to acquire a more lucrative farm, only to find himself and his wife and children stranded and looking for shelter when he discovers that the man who took his money for a down payment already sold the farm’s deed to someone else. Henry’s shame over being conned is exacerbated by the ignominy of living among blacks, and his simmering rage is expressed tacitly in his prickly interactions and explicitly in voiceover narrations during which he vents about the cold, hard land.
But Henry’s is just one perspective detailed via voiceover, and the sharply delineated views of each major character bring to mind the use of narration in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust in the way that concrete sociopolitical context grounds everyone’s psychological musings. Where Henry sees only failure around him, Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), an old, black sharecropper who lives nearby, speaks with pride in his own parcel of land, which he takes as hard-won proof of a better life than the one his recent ancestors had when they were working just as hard to reap these very fields but did so in chains.
Elsewhere, subtler conflicts of perspective arise. Henry’s wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), describes herself as having been a timid virgin before meeting her husband, yet her own internal monologues speak to a person far sharper than Henry, one able to see the stupidity of his plan to move to the countryside even before they discover he was duped. Yet she’s locked into her own role as wife, which places her subordinate to her husband’s wishes, further calling attention to the empty self-martyrdom of Henry’s bitter ruminations.
Throughout the film we catch glimpses of Vera (Lucy Faust), a white sharecropper who lives in the same extreme poverty as the black farmers but is driven to madness over her lot in life, begging and even threatening for work in ways that would get a black person jailed, or worse. Laura recoils at the sight of Vera, not only for her filthy state and violent intentions, but also, it’s implied, the woman’s personification of the thin line that separates the McAllan family from this level of depravity, which in turn would make Laura closer in status to her black neighbors than she could ever fathom.
Rees and Virgil Williams’s screenplay is devoted to articulating a silently ingrained hierarchy that’s as rigid as it is contradictory. Morgan plays Hap with stern but kind paternalism when surrounded by family, but Hap is deflated in the presence of whites, averting his eyes and speaking deferentially even when insulted. Meanwhile, Hap and his family must navigate not only the overt, violent racism of white supremacists like Henry’s father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), but also the authority wielded by obliviously condescending white folk like Henry himself. Henry has a habit of telling, not asking, the Jackson family to help out whenever he needs it, and the lack of malice in his voice speaks less to any kindness within him than it does to the deep-seated certainty of racial roles upheld well past the fall of the Confederacy.
Yet if the specter of the Civil War inevitably hangs over the story, the more pressing conflict is World War II, which sees Henry’s brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and Hap’s son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), sent to Europe. There are only a few combat scenes in Mudbound, but they’re bracingly constructed: Rees, while nominally recycling the same POV-heavy format that’s been the standard for war-movie action since the release of Saving Private Ryan, crucially withholds images of Axis soldiers being killed, restricting the camera to Jamie and Ronsel’s reactions as their comrades are cut down by machine guns and artillery. Thus the brackish murk of arterial blood that adds streaks of dark crimson to the heavy blues and greens of Rachel Morrison’s cinematography belongs entirely to friends, and it regularly splashes into the characters’ faces, rendering them catatonic with horror and fear.
As striking as Mudbound’s combat scenes are, they largely exist as setup for the postwar-set second half of the film, which scrutinizes the way that the atrocities witnessed in Europe laid bare the unsustainable hypocrisy in America’s own bigoted divisions. Jaime’s trauma completely divorces him from normal American life, and as such the racism that pervades his immediate surroundings, which is understood as the main reason why he feels no shame over forging a close bond with Ronsel over their shared war experiences. However, where Jamie is plagued only with recollections of past horrors, Ronsel must endure present-day ones. The film is pointed about the irony of having him return from a war that ended with European whites being grateful for his service to a homeland where Klu Klux clan members see the fire of their fears and resentments of blacks stoked by the idea that Ronsel was paid and decorated by the U.S. government for essentially killing whites.
The simmering rage felt toward Ronsel sets up a nightmarish climax that momentarily edges Mudbound into the kind of grotesque exploitation that the filmmakers had so expertly avoided up to this point. Yet the film manages to reconcile its rupture of horrific violence with its larger sense of Faulknerian despair over the insurmountable trap of social conditioning that cannot be dismantled even by an apocalyptic war that seemed to wipe out everything else. That Mudbound’s hopeful ending is set in a war-torn Germany still dealing with the airing of its own sins speaks to a bleak assessment of America’s postwar moral posturing and unresolved divisions.