NYFF Review: MUDBOUND – A Scattershot Treatise On Empathy

Dee Rees’ World War II race drama has snippets of brilliance.

The problem of whom to center in racism narratives is a paradox. The full scope of oppression can rarely be portrayed without depicting oppressors; turn them abstract and you end up with caricatures; spend too long humanizing them and the result borders on apologism. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of “white guilt” storytelling, often in the form of films aimed at white audiences finding comfort in white characters being absolved of racial sin. Mudbound however strikes a fascinating balance in the hands of Pariah’s Dee Rees (even though it stumbles on its way there), switching between centering the perspectives of white and black families during World War II and contextualizing its “white feelings” on racism as not only authentic and even moving, but wholly intrusive and ultimately inconsequential. It’s a film I wish was better, for its whole feels lesser than the sum of its parts, but those parts are a welcome change in our current social landscape.

Mudbound begins, quite purposefully, at the end of its story. Brothers Henry and Jamie McAllan (Jason Clarke and Garrett Hedlund) and the former’s wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) are burying their father on his farm. They’re our entry-point to this world and the characters with whom we first empathize. The reluctance of a nearby black family to lend a helping hand is vaguely alluded to – Mary J. Blige’s Florence and Rob Morgan’s Hap appear to be dealing with a tragedy of their own – but any further context is put off so we can flash back to the first meetings of Laura with the Brothers McAllan. This is their story, at least at first, and understanding the circumstances of how they came to arrive at the farm is vital in empathizing with them.

Henry and Laura’s romance feels typical of the late 1930s, with all that’s left unsaid told to us in character-specific voiceover. While the narrations themselves don’t feel entirely purposeful – some describe what’s already in front of us, others reference off-screen goings on like Henry’s proposal, and none of them provide any additional insight into Henry or Laura – they do serve a broader purpose beyond their immediate lack of luster. These particular narrations, even at times of heightened personal drama, are nearly always concerned with the self and with present circumstance. When the perspective switches over to the Jackson family (Hap, Florence and their four children), the film itself begins to feel more ethereal as the voiceovers begins to feel untethered from time, talking about, past, future and other people as the characters themselves are captured in stillness and isolation. 

We don’t meet the Jacksons until after Pearl Harbor, and after Jamie – whose seeming love triangle with Laura has to be cut short – ships off to war. Hap and Florence bid goodbye to their son Ronsell (Jason Mitchell) as he ships off, as well, and while Henry McAllan dreams of moving his kids to a Mississippi farm, Hap dreams of his kids escaping theirs so his daughter can become the first black stenographer. As it turns out, those farms happens to be one and the same: the McAllans are the Jacksons’ new landlords, and Henry’s arrival – signaled by a harsh knocking as the Jacksons sit down over dinner – is the first time he ceases to feel like either the film’s protagonist or any kind of “good” guy. Outside the context of the Jacksons, he’s a father and husband down on his luck, trying to live out his agrarian American dream. In their vicinity, he is the embodiment of intrusive whiteness, obnoxious and demanding, without a care for their comfort. Whether a flooded road or a broken limb, the Jacksons have no good excuse not to help Henry so long as they’re in his employ.

Mudbound is not a slavery narrative – it takes place two whole generations after the American civil war – but it speaks the visual language of a slavery movie, from the fears of the black farmhands when in proximity to whiteness, to the unfinished church that becomes a place of commiseration, ringing with hymns about freedom and resilience. Ironically, this has only become the language of the slavery film because of the slavery film’s prominence in our collective culture, compared to films about black struggle in the years between emancipation and Civil Rights. The law says one thing but the circumstances aren’t all that different, especially with Papy McAllan (Jonathan Banks) breathing down the neck of every black character and keeping them in line with racial slurs.

There are “good white people” to be found in Mudbound – that is to say, white characters who fit the narrative archetype wherein non (or lesser) racism comes off as heroic, but they don’t ever get to bask in that heroism. Mulligan’s Laura begins to see Henry’s behaviour for what it is, but she can rarely help the Jacksons (or her poor white employees) so long as Henry is in charge. There’s only so much she’s able to do, but even her kindness – employing Florence as her housekeeper – comes with downsides she doesn’t see, as the Jackson children are left without a mother for most of the week. When Henry’s brother Jamie returns from the war, he befriends the returning Ronsell as the two bond over the lovers they left behind and the friends they couldn’t save. Ronsell, who found himself being treated more fairly in Europe, returns to an America that doesn’t care about the stars on his uniform so long as they adorn black skin. Jamie really does do his best to treat him equally. As soldiers with common experience and the mental scars to prove it, they form a genuine friendship that you could get lost in as Mitchell and Hedlund tiptoe around racial coventions before opening up to one another, but Jamie doesn’t realize just how much his good deeds endanger Ronsell. Jamie may have come back changed and open minded, but Mississippi has remained the same in his absence. Even something as simple as letting him ride in his truck could be a potential death sentence.

Mudbound firmly finds its footing when World War II comes to and end, though its soldier characters returning home comes about an hour in to the runtime. Its meandering portions are not without their charms. The film is gorgeous, alternating between warm in its familial moments (both visually and tonally) and depressingly murky when it spends time in its eponymous muddy fields and the floods that delay any progress for the Jacksons. It’s rife with great performances too. Blige and Morgan walk a fine line between stoic resilience and nearly being crushed under the weight of their circumstances. Hedlund and Mitchell charm their way through even the most silent moments despite carrying unimaginable burdens. And Jason Clarke, well, he’s neither a liberator nor an all-out Klansman, but his Henry McAllan is perhaps the most detestable of the bunch, working quietly to preserve the status quo when it suits him. Even as the film drags along from point to point with voiceover that only really works in retrospect, it’s always pretty to look at and its performers are always enticing.

That may not be enough for the kind of cinematic experience that blows you away and stays with you long after, but make no mistake. Mudbound is a thoughtful treatise on who we’re willing to empathize with, and when, and why. It may feel like it’s trying to catch its breath as it struggles to vocalize its point, but as soon as it does – in a silent moment of mutual understanding between soldiers suffering from trauma – it begins to truly breathe. When it finally hits its climax, one that’s as hard to watch as it is necessary in order to round out its examination of white perspective, it soars. And of course, before it comes to a close, it revisits its opening scene with context and harrowing knowledge we didn’t previously have. Yet despite all the torment it builds to, it still attempts to provide solace.