Mudbound is one of those films that I can never wrap my head around. It’s definitely not a bad film, but definitely not a good one. The things it does right are too small to make up for the things it does wrong. The story isn’t really that groundbreaking, but it’s still serviceable enough to sustain mild interest. Mudbound is a film that is just fine on its own, but when comparing to other movies in its genre, or even other awards movies, there’s nothing special to make it stand out.
The film is set before, during, and immediately after WWII, tracking two families in the deep south, one white and one black. Both families endure struggles such as raising children in harsh environments and the threat of crop failure. However, the most important thing the film follows are the connections that the racially divided families make with each other. We see the fathers, mothers, and sons all bond together, each dealing with their differences in unique ways.
The film flirts with trying to be an epic examination of racism in America, but also an indie that looks at two different families in the same situation. Both go over alright, but neither stands out in the end. The film also falls into an endless cycle of repetition of trying to explain what life was like back then. Characters go through so much pain and setbacks that it gets tiresome by the end. We get it, life is hard.
There is also a storyline about the white mother, Laura, and her feelings about how her life has changed. While Carey Mulligan does a great job portraying a woman whose life is continuously getting worse as times goes on, she doesn’t get enough time to make the story feel fledged out. This comes as a surprise for a long film such as this. Most parts dragged on for a while, almost feeling like the director needed more material to try and make this film different from similar stories that have been told before.
The cinematography here is exceptionally done by Rachel Morrison. She captures the vastness of the Mississippi plains, but also the dirty and putrid conditions of those same plains. The cramped houses of both the families are shown well, dirt and muck everywhere the eye can see. Natural lighting is used the majority of the time, which works to benefit the film since the sun is almost a villain itself, endlessly beating down on the characters. We see nature captured as both a giver of life and a harbinger of death, offering people just enough to keep them around while also punishing them relentlessly.
Carey Mulligan gives the standout performance as the wife of a man whom she loves less as the days go on. She struggles to remain loyal to him even though his actions are the sole reason why she is miserable in the first place. She’s quiet on the outside, but on the inside, we can tell there is a battle going on inside her head of what she should do. It’s perfectly balanced by Mulligan, who deserved more awards attention for her work.
Both Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell do a great job as Jamie and Ronsel, respectively. They share a common connection through the war that is powerful enough to bring them together despite their racial differences. They both make their characters whole as they try to learn how to live a normal life back home after the war.
Mary J. Blige also does well as Florence, the mother of Ronsel and the matriarch of her family. She’s a woman who is able to give compassion, but also ready to fight and hold her own when the time comes. She goes especially well with Mulligan and Rob Morgan as her husband, Hap.
Finally, Jason Clarke and Jonathan Banks are alright as father and son. Clarke is Henry, husband to Laura, and Banks is Pappy, an old WWI veteran who still believes the south should return back to times of slavery. They both give rather one-note performances that are easily overshadowed by everyone else.
There is a lot to live up to when you’re attempting to make a film about race relations in America. Many have failed to reach the heights of films such as The Color Purple and most recently, Selma. Unfortunately for Mudbound, it too joins the club of those who have tried and failed. It was never able to surpass expectations and by the end only comes across as just good enough.