'Mudbound' review: Gripping tale of 2 families in WWII-era Mississippi

“Mudbound” compacts a lot of story, handed off between no fewer than six narrators, into a little over two hours. So much of it works, with an unusually deft balance between its African-American and white characters, that you wish co-writer and director Dee Rees could stretch it out to a full three- or four-hour adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 debut novel.

But we have the “Mudbound” we have, and it really is something — a vividly acted, dramatically rich depiction, harsh and beautiful, of life and death in 1940s Mississippi, following two families of intertwined destinies.

It’s a shame Netflix is all but ignoring a theatrical release. This weekend, in addition to streaming on Netflix starting Friday, the film opens in a few stray theaters nationwide, including one in the Chicago suburb of South Barrington. Unlike Amazon Studios (stewards of “Manchester by the Sea,” a so-called “tough sell” that ended up making $47 million theatrically), Netflix doesn’t devote much money to what it perceives as a rival exhibition platform. So, like “Beasts of No Nation” two years ago and plenty of strong Netflix titles before and since, “Mudbound” is likely to be sidelined at the Oscars.

I’m glad I saw it projected in a theater the first time I saw it, because director Rees and her ace cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, deliver widescreen images of real size. They get the most out of the land, the weather, the clashes and, most importantly, the faces.

The landowners and the tenant farmers share this same muddy corner of the Delta, however uneasily. The McAllan family consists of Henry (Jason Clarke) and his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan). The story moves from early scenes set in the 1930s into wartime, the 1940s. The McAllans have moved from Memphis to Mississippi, at Henry’s abrupt announcement that he always wanted to be a farmer. Scammed out of a nice house in town, they end up residing in a shack next to the cotton fields, not far from the Jackson family.

Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) is the oldest child of Hap (Rob Morgan) and his wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige), and with his porkpie hat tilted just so, Rosnel heads off to war and worlds unknown. Jordan’s novel, and the screenplay co-written by Virgil Williams and Rees, sets up bookends and parallels throughout. Like Ronsel, who becomes involved with a white woman in Bavaria, Henry’s dashing bachelor brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), returns from battle with post-traumatic stress disorder and a profound feeling of dislocation. Jamie moves in with the McAllans. There’s a kindness in this man, messed up by demons of all kinds, and Laura notices.

In scenes both swift and evocative, “Mudbound” details the dawning friendship between the two veterans, Jamie and Ronsel. It’s a friendship forbidden by every social stricture of the pre-civil rights era South. More subtly, Laura and Florence recognize in each other women who were born too early. The violence in “Mudbound” can be difficult to watch, and a climactic lynching is truly excruciating, a test of viewers’ resolve to get through it. It’s also justified. Rees is a dramatist, not an exploiter.

To be sure, there’s a fair amount of pulp in the source material, which riffs on Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and sets up a clear, familiar line of sexual suspense. Laura and Jamie are drawn to each other, demurely at first. When they finally take the leap into bed, behind Henry’s back, the images are cross-cut with the lynching. There are times in “Mudbound” when the story’s breathless pacing becomes a bit of a blur, and the scenes of aerial and ground combat are not the film’s standouts.

But every key relationship in the film registers in ways that truly matter, and that bring out the best in every performer. This is a wonderful acting showcase. In addition to those already mentioned, there’s a fine, slimy turn from Jonathan Banks as Pappy McAllan. Laura’s father-in-law is an emblem of every racist, predatory, murderous impulse a bad white man, in that time, in that place, could bring to bear on a society.

We’ve seen stories like this one before on screen, but what’s new, and arresting, about “Mudbound” is how easily and persuasively director Rees moves between these families. In a lesser adaptation, noble, dashing, damaged Jamie would constitute white savior material. Not here. In a more typical treatment, the African-American characters would struggle to claim their share of the narrative. Not here. Rees previously directed two feature-length films, the excellent coming-of-age drama “Pariah” (2011) and the HBO biopic “Bessie” (2015). “Mudbound” cements her versatility, her sensitivity and, I hope, her future.

Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune’s film critic.


Twitter @phillipstribune

"Mudbound" -- 3.5 stars

MPAA rating: R (for some disturbing violence, brief language and nudity)

Running time: 2:14

Opens: Friday at the iPic South Barrington; streaming via Netflix starting Friday

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