Mudbound (2017) Movie Full Review, Summary, and Where to Watch Online

When Netflix started producing its original content years ago it hit it out of the park with House Of Cards and Orange Is The New Black and only grew from there with Daredevil, their first MCU series, and Beasts Of No Nation, their first full-length feature in 2015. In the time since then though, with the rise of Adam Sandler projects and over-extended programming Netflix has lost its guarantee of quality and holds more of a mixed bag, which is a shame because they are capable of making great content and as Mudbound proves, their capable of making Oscar calibre content.

Set during and after W.W.2, the film opens with the McAllen family; Henry, his wife Laura, their two daughters and Henry’s father Pappy uprooting from their secure life in Memphis to live and work on a farm in Mississippi, much to the shock of Laura who had no clue as to her husband’s dreams of being a farmer. When they arrive however they discover Henry has been duped and the family manor was sold to a different family forcing the McAllen’s to live in the farmhouse out in the fields with their closest neighbours being a black family of tenant farmers headed by Hap Jackson, his wife Florence and their four children including eldest Ronsel.

After the Pearl Harbour attack and the United States entering the war, Ronsel enlists to fight, leading a tank squadron of black soldiers through Europe and enjoying the freedom he has from the less racially insensitive locals. Also enlisted is Jamie McAllen, Henry’s younger, smarter and more handsome brother who takes to the skies as a flight bomber, quickly making it to the rank of Captain. While the two sons are away, the McAllen and Jackson families try to work out life together, not helped by Pappy’s vile open racism and Henry’s well-meaning but thick-headed ways, Florence and Laura maintain civility once Laura hires her as a housekeeper to help her settle into the farming life, even paying for a doctor with Henry’s money after Hap suffers a broken leg, allowing him to return to work and Florence can stay with her.

When the war ends Jamie and Ronsel both arrive in Mississippi to be with their families again, but both suffer from PTSD from the violent loss of friends and the constant fear of death looming over their heads and from their shared feelings of being out of place, Ronsel through having to return to the second-class citizen life of segregated Mississippi and Jamie through the guilt of killing people but a s bomber unable to know how many or even what they looked like. The two men find a friendship in their shared experiences and take to spending their days together drinking and reminiscing, with neither of them able to fit back into family life both men make plans beyond Mississippi, but the violent racism of the time starts to rear its ugly head with both of them stuck in its crosshairs.

To film is admittedly a slow burn with it being nearly an hour before Jamie and Rosel return home and the plot kicks off properly, but they use that initial hour well to set up all the characters and their relationships so when the main storyline does comes into play we can see exactly how Jamie and Ronself are struggling to fit back into regular life and what this regular life has against them. This is a goddamn powder-keg of a film and for the majority of that second half you’re waiting for it all to go off, and it’s as awful as you can imagine, while other films have captured similar themes this one brings it all together to tell a tale of family, trauma, self-worth and self-destruction.

One of the film’s core strengths is the ensemble cast and most everyone delivers a solid, well-rounded arc to their character. Jason Clarke presents Henry McAllen as a well-meaning but ultimately narrow-minded man who’s too dense to notice his glaring flaws; he fails to tell his wife anything until the last minute, he’s too trusting to the wrong people and he never recognising Hap as actually human, instead just using him for labour. That last one is important because Henry is never openly racist towards Hap or his family like his father the discrimination is still there, it’s just more subtle, for all the times Henry tries to play peacekeeper there’ll be another where he treats Hap like nothing more than a worker ant for his farm. I never found myself hating Henry, he was too dumb to be ignorant, but his failings made it difficult to like him and Clarke balanced that line well.

Henry’s wife Laura was a girl out of place in the civilised world and even more so in the rural world, which played to Cary Mulligan’s little girl lost strength. Half-desperate, half-forced into a marriage with her brother’s boss, Laura found herself somewhat content with the life of a housewife but the sudden move to Mississippi ripped her away from that comfort and threw her into a life she was unprepared for, miles from anywhere and stuck by herself for hours on end. Laura’s inability to fit into this rural world is key to her arc of finally thinking for herself, it’s a slow process and she’s faced with issues ranging from her children being sick with no daughter in sight to a neighbouring housewife threatening violence against her paederast husband, but with no-one else to rely on she knows she has to survive her way.

Pappy McAllen, played by Jonathan Banks, is one of the vilest, most reprehensible racist characters put to screen in a long time, I almost forgot how much I liked Mike he’s that much of a cunt, when he’s not using the N-word like most people use a comma he’s complaining about something or other, he is the villain of the piece and Banks nails the part. While Pappy doesn’t have an arc the same way the other characters do, what builds him above just a simple old racist bastard is just how far he goes, the majority of the film’s powder-keg involves him and his reaction to the life around him.

While the McAllen’s are fractured and suffering from being out of place, the Jacksons are much more put together though still struggling in their own way. Rob Morgan plays Hap Jackson as a fair man worn down by years of abuse and discrimination, no longer slaves but still treated like slave labour he’s trying to save enough to own the land he’s working on. He has a good heart but the turmoil around him and his age catching up to him has made him bitter but he puts on a brave face for the white folk. There’s a subtlety to Morgan’s performance that’s befitting for a black man of the time, he’s passive, never causing a fuss, never drawing attention to himself, but all the while suffering internally from his inability to do anything.

Mary J. Blige takes on an unrecognisable role as Florence, Hap’s wife and the backbone of the family, while she suffers the same racism and discrimination as her husband she faces it head-on, refusing to let it bring her down or let it distract her from the most important thing in life, her children. It’s why, despite her asshole of a father-in-law, she’s able to connect with Laura and agrees to help her look after her children while she settles into the farming life, while her primary concern was the extra money she and Hap needed you could see the shared mother’s love between the two of them and allowed you to understand why Florence put herself through so much hate to provide a better future for her own.

As the sons of both families it’s Jamie and Ronsel come out as the strongest characters, Jamie, played by Garrett Hedlund, is charming and well-groomed, even managing to woo Laura with little effort, but after the war, he struggles to find his place in life and comes to resent to praise heaped on him as a war hero. Suffering from PTSD and survivor’s guilt his only solace becomes alcohol, as clichéd as that sounds Hedlund manages to avoid a typically alcoholic character, finding the self-destructive nature of Jamie to be more psychological, pushing away everyone around him and putting on a defensive wall, the only two to break through are Laura who shares his out-of-place mentality and Ronsel who shares his war-time trauma.

Having already broken through with Straight Outta Compton, Jason Mitchell proves himself as one of the best new talents around playing Ronsel, the eldest son of Hap and Florence, his enlistment brought pride to a family that deserved their moment to shine and throughout the European campaign Ronsel came to enjoy the hospitality and even took a German woman for a lover during his stay in the country. The sharp and sudden reminder of his place at the bottom of the pile as a black man upon returning home is a harsh one and he doesn’t take kindly to old white fucks trying to belittle him, he has his mother’s fire but cannot control it. Mitchell builds Ronsel as a character of determination and strength but having tasted civility and common fucking decency firsthand, his return home places within him the struggle between staying with his family in a place that might get him killed or leaving for somewhere safer and possibly never seeing them again. His friendship with Jamie, while tentative at first, gives him someone to open up to about his split decision and to help them both unload their experiences from the war.

Something director Dee Rees manages to do quite impressively is juggle all these characters and never feel like the film is spreading itself too thin, everyone has a part to play and all feel necessary in one way or another. Part of this is helped by her inclusion of several first-hand narrators – most notably Laura, Hap, Florence, Jamie and Ronsel – and allowing them all to share their inner thoughts at a time when talking out loud was deemed inappropriate for a woman or a black person or mocked for a supposed war hero. The lifeblood of this film is the relationship between the two families both violent and friendly and getting that much more insight into the key players helped shape those relationships, while I would’ve liked to have seen Pappy or Henry get their narration I understand why neither of them did.

Rees’s work with the characters is second only to how she handles the central themes of the film, allowing this to become a much deeper and more thought-provoking picture with a lot of relevance today. The theme of America hits hardest with both the McAllen and the Jackson families suffering similar levels of poverty and strife but in very different manners, the Jacksons have only ever known this life with generations of their family passing the land down to them while the McAllen’s were forced in through Henry’s stupidity. Despite that, though Henry and Pappy still see themselves are of higher standing than the Jacksons, it’s a vile mentality but one that ebbs through the Mississippi Delta like a virus to the point where it’s considered strange to even be civil to a black person, that sense of the lowest white man being better than a black man in the same situation, even a war hero who fought and died alongside white soldiers, is a key component to the film’s central conflict.

Rees also includes themes of self-destruction, primarily through Jamie’s alcoholism and his psychological armour but also through the likes of Hap who pushes himself despite a broken leg to make a harvest and keep his job and Laura who suffers through the depression of being lost and alone. She also conversely brings in the theme of self-worth which ties back into the sense of how white and black people perceived themselves, Henry’s refusal to admit he was duped leads the McAllen’s into their poverty-stricken lifestyle. Laura’s inability to see herself as anything more than a lowly housewife traps her in the same bind as Henry. Pappy’s high opinion of himself stemmed from nothing more than being an old white guy a toxic storm cloud lingering over the film, waiting to strike out at the worst possible moment. Jamie’s guilt over surviving when better men died lessens his self-worth and he reacts by shutting himself away, while Ronsel gains a higher opinion of himself but struggles to readjust to home life. Hap and Florence are both proud of how far they’ve come but Hap is still constantly reminded of how low he is on the social ladder and broken down because of it while Florence builds herself up to survive the war of discrimination if on a psychological front if nothing else. This is why the multiple narrations are important, it’s just as necessary to see what everyone thinks of themselves as it is to see what they think of others, the dichotomy of it all ties into the racism of the time and lights the powder keg that pulses throughout the entire film.

While Rees nails the thematic elements of the film it’s her deft ability to construct this ever-present threat throughout a film with this slow burn and from the moment Ronsel returns home you get this cloud of dread that just suffocates the film. With the rural Mississippi setting – beautifully captured to showcase a barren, hopeless landscape in the cinematography – we see land where people can go missing, where there’s no help for miles and where anything can happen with enough force behind you. Throughout the film, you just know something is going to happen to Ronsel or to his family but you don’t know what and you don’t know when Rees uses that to keep you on edge throughout, using each moment of conflict as a potential blasting point to unleash everything. And when it does finally go off, fuck me it’s rough, it’s probably one of the hardest scenes of the year to sit through and the consequences that follow leave a lasting impression on nearly everyone even long after the credits roll, I have gotta commend Rees for not holding back and going to that harsh a place, I’ve seen worse in similar films – Django Unchained focussed a lot more on the violence and bloodshedding – but few that hit as hard as this one.

While I honestly doubt Mudbound will gain any Oscar buzz without playing in a theatrical run, it honestly does deserve the attention both in awards and in audiences. It tackles racism in wartime America with weight and poise and position two families in the same fate and lets us watch what happens when they clash. Rees makes a name for herself and stands out as a talent to look out for while the cast proves to be one of the best ensemble pieces of recent memory with Mitchell and Hedlund delivering the film’s core with heart and gravitas. Worth watching as one of the more important movies of 2017.

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