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Netflix's Mudbound is a weighty, unmissable film about people, their land, and their history

The star-studded historical drama confronts racial tensions in post-war Mississippi.

Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund in Mudbound
Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund in Mudbound.
Steve Dietl/Netflix
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Dee Rees’s heartbreaking historical drama Mudbound takes its central motif from its name. Mud is literally everywhere, heavy mud from unending rain that clings to people’s skin and clothing and buildings and never seems to wash away.

But the mud is metaphorical, too, a stand-in for the patina of time and history that coats everything in places like the American South. You can try to wash it all off — your own past, your own regrets, and the long unbroken chain of bitterness and desire passed along from generation to generation — but like mud stirred up by the driving rain, those things never stay away for long.

Mudbound is almost a mood piece, lushly shot and composed with voiceover from multiple characters, with a story that feels remarkably contemporary even though it’s set around World War II. Americans are people bound to their pieces of land, the film says — and are by extension bound to the blood and bodies, the love and hate that have lived there before them. It is a sober, clear-eyed, and haunting work of art.

Mudbound follows two young men returning home from war to the Mississippi Delta

Adapted by Rees and Virgil Williams from Hillary Jordan’s 2009 novel, Mudbound focuses on two families in the pre- and post-war Mississippi Delta. The McAllans are white farmers; the Jacksons are black sharecroppers. Through years of hope and disappointment, their lives intertwine in complicated and painful ways.

Laura (Carey Mulligan) is 31 and living with her parents in Memphis when her brother brings home his boss Henry (Jason Clarke) for dinner. Laura and Henry marry, and against the backdrop of World War II raging across the ocean, they have two daughters. One day Henry announces that they’re moving in three weeks to Mississippi, where he’s fulfilled his lifelong dream and bought a farm. And so they take off, with his bitterly racist father (Jonathan Banks) in tow.

Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan in Mudbound
Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan in Mudbound.
Steve Dietl/Netflix

They arrive to discover the farm isn’t everything they’d hoped, and wind up living in a shack without running water or electricity near their tenants, Florence and Hap Jackson (Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan) and their family. Both families are living in the dirt and working hard for their living, but the hierarchy between them is clear, and based on race. They don’t become friends, exactly, but Laura hires Florence to help with the children, and Henry and Hap keep up a barely cordial relationship.

Then the war ends. The Jacksons’ son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), a tank commander with a German sweetheart, returns home from Europe — where, as a black man, he was treated differently than he was in his hometown — to Mississippi, and the crushing recollection of the racial hatred. The white men in town won’t even let him enter the grocery store through the front door. They demand he know his place.

Henry’s handsome younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) also returns from war, where he was a fighter pilot, and strikes up a friendship with Ronsel against the strenuous wishes of his father. Jamie reacts to the trauma of the war and the strange letdown of its end by sinking into alcoholism and depression, while Ronsel tries to burrow back into life with his family.

But it’s not working. Something shifted inside both Jamie and Ronsel during the war, and the grind of a hard life shifts something inside Laura and Florence, too. They might wish for a better life, but the mud holds them down.

Mudbound is realistic about race and relationships, but tinged with love

Mudbound is a tremendously sensitive and unsparing exploration of the relationships between men and women, poor and wealthy, and especially black and white people in the post-war South. The whole ensemble — but especially Blige and Mulligan — deliver emotional, finely tuned performances in which faces, eyes, and voices relayer their words and actions.

Throughout the film (which is beautifully shot by Rachel Morrison, and worth seeing in a theater if you can) there’s a feeling of a layer of topsoil having shifted. People know the world is changing. But they’re resisting it with all of their might by sinking their hooks into the bedrock that links them to the past.

Carey Mulligan in Mudbound
Carey Mulligan in Mudbound.
Steve Dietl/Netflix

So the poor white men don hoods and form lynch mobs to keep the black men in their place, and they beat their sons when they don’t do the same. Mudbound is set in the Jim Crow South, and much of its strength as a character-driven story comes from the way each person reacts to the friction in their relationships generated by a culture that still operates with a strict hierarchy that gives white men enormous latitude and funnels down from there.

And thus, the friendship between Ronsel and Jamie causes trouble, and even in its most congenial moments the disparity between them is palpable. A similar but more formal dynamic exists between Laura and Florence, two women whose gender gives them common ground that’s undermined by their race. Sparks fly from the start between Jamie and Laura, too — especially since Henry seems inattentive and overbearing, even if he isn’t violent or mean in the way his father is — but propriety and position put barriers between them.

And even those white people who aren’t outwardly violent or aggressive toward their black neighbors are loath to confront those who are, standing by and letting it happen because it’s always been that way. This isn’t the kind of film where the white people are strangely enlightened compared to their neighbors; it has its feet planted firmly on the ground. (Mudbound premiered last January at Sundance, but it feels painfully timely for the end of 2017.) Conflicts between fathers and sons, between the old guard and the younger one, between the land and the people trying to work and live on it shape the characters’ lives. It is a hard existence.

But beauty gets in around the mud. All of these conflicts are filtered through the voices of six main characters — Laura, Henry, Jamie, Hap, Florence, and Ronsel — who fill in their recollections in quiet voiceovers relating what they saw and what they learned. It’s a surprisingly effective storytelling device, and it brings to light the ways that love grows through the cracks like crops through the heavy dirt.

Steve Dietl/Netflix

And there are moments of clarity. After they move to Mississippi, Laura professes in voiceover her love of Saturday baths, the one day when they, at least briefly, can be clean. She huddles in the exposed tub in the backyard and pours water over her dirty skin. Later Jamie builds his sister-in-law a shower that makes getting clean easier, with a wall around it for privacy and the ability to stand and look at the sky and be bathed in sunlight as the water pours over her.

It’s an act of love, but also of dignity — a small movement but one laden with meaning. It doesn’t fix anything, but it clears away some of the dirt. Mudbound is filled with those halting movements, enabled by grace and, sometimes, something like love. You couldn’t call it a hopeful film, exactly. But there is plenty of hope around the edges.

Mudbound opens in theaters and on Netflix on November 17.