'Mudbound' Review: Garett Hedlund & Jason Mitchell Sparkle In Dee Rees' Southern Family Epic [Sundance]

Any movie should consider itself lucky to have an ensemble as good as the one anchoring Mudbound, which includes Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund, and, most unexpectedly, Mary J. Blige. Directed by Dee Rees (whose debut feature Pariah was a breakout favorite at Sundance 2011), the drama follows two families — one black, one white — living on the same farm in the Mississippi Delta around the time of World War II.

The white McAllans own the property, despite the fact that household head Henry (Jason Clarke) is a Memphis gentleman who knows little about the land, and seemingly moved his family to the country on a whim. The Jacksons, on the other hand, have worked these acres for generations, for one white owner after another. Both clans are forever changed when World War II hits, and then again when the war ends and brings their loved ones back home. 

Mudbound is an adaptation of a novel and feels like it, even if you had no idea it was one going in (I didn't). Occasionally, it sags under the weight of its own ambition. To take one example, a running subplot about a family of white sharecroppers on the same farm hits a dead end. But for the most part, its provenance seems to encourage Mudbound to take its time getting to know the land and the characters who live on it — the personal demons they're battling, the relationships that define them, the social and cultural forces that silently and invisibly push them along. When the tension between the two families comes to a head in the third act, the intensity feels well earned.

On the McAllans' side, there's Henry, a dim and obstinate man who wins over the bookish Laura (Carey Mulligan) mostly by being the only man who's ever paid attention to her in her 31 years. Sparks fly the moment she meets Henry's playwright brother Jamie (Hedlund), but they're separated before long — he's sent to war, and she and Henry are headed off to Mississippi. The Jacksons consist of Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Blige), a hardworking couple dreaming of a better life. They're driven by love of God and love of family, including their sevearl children. The oldest of those is Ronsel (Mitchell), a sweet and smart young man who's also sent overseas to fight in the war.

Mudbound is a huge step up in scope for Rees. Pariah was a small-scale character study about a teenager struggling with her sexual identity in Brooklyn; Mudbound is an sprawling epic juggling multiple storylines set over several years. Rees steps up to the challenge admirably. As in Pariah, Rees (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Virgil Williams) isn't interested in caricatures or archetypes. The only major character who comes across as one-dimensional is Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks), a cruel patriarch and a virulent racist. But he lurks largely in the background while other, more interesting characters come to the fore and build increasingly complicated relationships with one another. Through those, Rees and her team explore both the resilience of empathy and its limits.

Though the Jacksons and McAllans are given equal weight in this narrative, Mudbound never allows us to forget that the Jacksons are second-class citizens in the society they live in. Sometimes, it's in ways that are obvious even to the McAllans. When Jamie and Ronsel strike up a friendship, for instance, it's clear even to Jamie that it's a bad idea for them to be seen together. But so often, the Jacksons feel that weight in ways that are invisible to the McAllans. When Jamie asks, with lurid fascination, whether Ronsel's ever been with a white woman, it doesn't seem to occur to him that simply answering the question could put Ronsel in danger.

Hedlund has perhaps never been better than he is here as Jamie, a firecracker of a man who seems determined to snuff himself out with liquor. Mitchell's role is less showy, but he's no less good — he's a master of expressing emotion with his eyes. The true surprise here, though, is Blige. She is downright unrecognizable as Florence. The role that requires her to strip away everything we know as Mary J. Blige: the striking looks, the the grand personality, the big voice. What emerges in their absence is a tough and tender portrayal of a mother who's sacrificed and suffered all her life, but is still capable of savoring the rare sweet spots life has to offer.

So many films about America's past treat our sins as though they've all been washed away. Mudbound, like the best of its ilk, knows that's not the case. It lingers on small indignities and tiny moments of grace, on the millions of little ways that people lift each other up or push each other down, and those still resonate today, even as we pat ourselves on the back for being past the days of Jim Crow. I watched Mudbound just two days after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president, having run on the promise to return America to the spit-shined, sparkling good ol' days, when white men ruled and black people knew their place. Mudbound is a reminder that even in those days, the truth of daily existence was a lot, well, muddier.