Mudbound is one of those rare films that suck you in from the very first frame. An expanse of moist land, two sons digging out a grave for their dead father, trying to dig it faster, before the storm hits. The skies have welled up with clouds ready to burst and a gloom has set over the land; you are right there in the middle of all this, feeling the impending storm in your bones, such is the mastery of the Director Dee Rees and the cinematographer Rachel Morrison, both women.
The film is based on a Novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan, a woman. I have always wondered how our films would change if made by women, if every major department of filmmaking was headed by a woman, how would the stories change, how differently would the sensibility of a situation play out when told from a woman’s perspective; would it be as moving and thoughtful as it is when a man makes it, the answer is, it is better. Mudbound benefits hugely from the inherent sensitivity women possess as a species. The direction, camera work, production design and music, all headed by women, come together to conceive a film that has incredible depth and heft, coloured by the right amount of empathy.
The story is set in the 1930s and the world is crippled by War and hatred. The War here, is not just about the Allies and Axis or Hitler and Churchill, the war in Mudbound is more rooted, it is about humanity, it is about acceptance, about a strong feeling of hatred that is uncalled for and a sense of entitlement that seems practically ant-like set against the horizon of the endless rich, fertile land. Dee Rees sets up frames that include tiny human beings with their oversized egos and the forces of nature like the humongous land and furious rain. These frames scream out the presence of man’s arrogance and the absence of gratitude.
Mudbound is a familial story, racism is only another aspect of this layered film, at the heart of it, the film is about the familial dynamics. It does deal with racism but never is preachy or over-sympathetic towards to the marginalized. Laura is a 31 year old woman who never received much male attention. She happens to fall for a decent man, Henry McAllan. After a happy few years, Henry decides to realise his long burried passion for farming and moves to the country side, into living conditions that are much different from what the family is used to. There is a Black family living in the neighborhood, renting people’s farms and working in them to earn their livelihood. The head of the family is a determined, hardworking, Hap Jackson, a rooted family man who sweats it out in the farm owned by the Whites and conducts sessions of Bible readings for a group of blacks, where he recites the words of The Lord, his voice chocking with hope for a better tomorrow. This is a film with characters that are so well etched-out that each character speaks to you, both metaphorically and literally. It is like a narration, a monologue, each character speaking out its perspective of the times and situations they are living in. One moment, it is about the plight of a forgotten wife, who loses an unborn child and the next, it is about a beautiful friendship of two War heroes of different colour. This friendship is the crux of the film, that holds together a screenplay which offers equal depth and relevance to each character.
The already well written characters are brought to life by some tremendous actors who evoke a sense of empathy that is hard to shake off. Two of the most interesting characters are the two female leads, Laura played by Carey Mulligan and Florence played by the incredible Mary. J. Blige. It could be because of a female director that there is so much depth in these characters and a thread connecting these two mothers who understand each others pain without ever sharing it. This bond lends to the film a peculiar sensitivity that is seldom found in dramas about racism.
This is a period film, set in the 1930s and takes its own sweet time to unfold, rightly so as it is how life was back in those times. However, at one point there is not much happening in the story and you start to wonder where this story is headed and if it is any more than a drama about two distraught families, and Dee Rees destroys this feeling of boredom that sets in, by bombing you with a twist in the tale that is the most affecting and touching aspect of the film, in which two War heroes, one from the White family and the other from the Black family return home safe, as the war ends. They return home, only to realize that the war only continues to haunt them but in a different form. These War heroes, who returned safe from the deadliest war the world had ever seen, find themselves to be the most unsafe and threatened and humiliated at the hands of their own people, back home. You wonder how a vicious racist old man is different from the evil, Hitler was.
The colour palette used for the two families is interesting. As the film moves ahead, you see how the testing circumstances only thicken the bond among the Black family and how the Whites tend to grow irate. This difference of emotion is beautiful exemplified by the colours and the lightning sued. There is a sense of warmth created with Hap’s family with beautiful use of candle light whereas the growing coldness among Henry’s family is made palpable by the use greys and blues. Mudbound is about families it shows in the film and the world as a Family. Every frame of the film evokes a feeling of an inexplicable connection to the mud, to the land. As one of the character says “I started dreaming in brown”. Dee Rees’ film compels us to see the undeniable fact that all human race, is but a family that is born out of the same land and is bound by the same mud, nurtured by the same force.