As occupied Europe is liberated from the yoke of the Nazis, soldiers and villagers dance jubilantly in the street. Peace is restored. Happiness is restored. From a bedroom window overlooking the scene Ronsel Jackson holds his girlfriend Resl in a tender embrace. The look on his face isn't one of joy though. It's one of sadness. Not just because it means him and Resl will soon be parted but also because it means he's going to have go back to Mississippi.
In the delta, Ronsel's not a soldier, he's not a liberator, and, in the eyes of many of the white folk who live there, he's barely a person. He's been risking his life on a foreign field so that they can sleep easy in their beds but when he gets back to America he's still not allowed to use the front door of the grocery store or ride in the front seats of the bus. He's returning to a place where every knock of the door carries the threat, latent or actual, of extreme violence.
Dee Rees' new film, Mudbound, is not a film shy to take on the big subjects. War, racism, one man's dominion over another, man's dominion over woman, and the age old struggle between doing what's the correct and moral thing and doing the thing that'll get you through the day either in peace or, in some cases here, in one piece.
Mudbound tackles these big subjects but it artfully remembers to do so at a human level. The wider upheavals and disasters of the thirties and forties can easily be extrapolated from this tale of two families sketching out meagre existences as Mississippi sharecroppers. The white McAllan family and the considerably poorer, though less dysfunctional, Jackson family who are black.
The McAllans have moved down from Memphis where elder brother Henry (Jason Clarke) has taken, as his bride, Laura (Carey Mulligan). Laura, before meeting Henry, was a 31 year old virgin still living with her parents and fond of playing the piano. It's clear from the start that she's never loved Henry but she loved the idea of being a wife, of being a mother, and of fulfilling both her marital and maternal duties.
Henry's brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), is the fire to Henry's ice. He's handsome, worldly wise, cultured, louche, and a huge hit with the ladies. He looks at Laura, and she at him, in a way Henry never could - and they all know it. At the other end of the charm spectrum stands their father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks, correctly celebrated for his portrayal of Mike Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad). Pappy is an unashamed and unreconstructed racist with no redeemable qualities whatsoever. Almost every other word begins with the letter 'n' and his sons tolerate him, more than they could ever love him.
Naturally, he's none too happy to have to share land with the Jackson family. Parents Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J Blige in a role utterly shorn of divadom) struggle to make ends meet and maintain their dignity while bringing up four children in the harsh, unforgiving, southern sun. When her eldest son, Ronsel, enlists after Pearl Harbor, Florence refuses to either watch him leave or pray for his soul as she believes these acts are signs of bad luck and bad faith.
Ronsel serves as a sergeant and tank driver and finds an acceptance in Europe that he's never had at home. Meanwhile Jamie becomes a flight captain and sees his friends die in front of him, as we witness his passion for whiskey develop into a full time occupation. When both Ronsel and Jamie return home they're both shocked by the complacence and ingratitude of those they fought to save.
For Ronsel, of course, it's worse. Pappy and other small town, small minded, racists seek to thwart his every ambition but in Jamie he finds a friend, a man who's seen similar things, a man who's had his eyes opened to the world, and a man who has no intention of slipping back into the narrow confined rut that society has dug for him.
From the late thirties into the mid-forties we follow the fortunes, and misfortunes, of these two families whose lives have, by land, work, and circumstance, become entwined and entangled inextricably. We see Hap's health worsen and the Jacksons money worries grow, we see how Henry's lack of passion turns Laura away from him, and we see Laura herself slowly begin to embrace her own sexuality and agency.
Terrible things happen, truly awful things, but also small acts of kindness are played out in an affecting, touching way that, nudged along by Tamar Kali-Brown's string soaked score, can't help but tug at the heartstrings.
The film is beautifully shot, the wide open spaces of the Mississippi delta are as colour saturated and picturesque to look at as they must be soul destroying and backbreaking to work, and each actor puts in an utterly bravura performance. Jason Mitchell plays Ronsel as a boy on the verge of being a man, a boy forced to grow up before his time, and, later, as a man of certainty and moral rectitude. Carey Mulligan, too, is superb as Laura. Her journey from cossetted ingénue to quietly confident matriarch would almost be strong enough for an entire film of its own.
Rob Morgan and Mary J Blige get to look dignified and pensive a lot and Jason Clarke gets a bit of a water carrier gig, playing the unlovable, but practical, Henry. Henry's no active racist but he tolerates Pappy's vile language and behaviour. Jonathan Banks really gets his teeth into playing the villain of the piece, and you wince every time appears on screen, but it seems to be that it's Garret Hedlund who gets the most fun job of all.
The PTSD suffering boozehound Jamie gets to kick pales of milk over, crash his truck, and roll around in the mud, and it's him and Ronsel that prove to be not only the heroes but the warm heart of an often very dark drama. A very dark drama that anyone interested in either the twisted racial politics of the 20th century, the machinations and motivations of the human psyche, or anyone who simply enjoys good stories shot well, acted well, and told well should consider getting along to see.