Film Review: Mudbound (2017)

Mudbound is an intense historical film set in the deep south of the United States after WWII. The central characters are members of two families, the McAllens and the Jacksons. It’s also based on a book.

The opening scene is very striking. It begins with Henry and Jamie, two brothers in Mississippi digging a grave for their father. They realise it’s a slave’s grave halfway through, but a storm presses them on even as Henry protests. Jamie, who doesn’t care, continues. The rain worsens and Jamie gets stuck in the grave and begins to panic, screaming for his brother. It’s very clear from the get go that Jamie suffers from PTSD. Henry returns and pulls his brother out, with Jamie, hysterical, telling him he thought Henry would leave. To which Henry promises that he’d never do that, they’re brothers. It’s a moment that really underscores the relationship between the two. The fear, the doubt, the love that binds them together.

The scene then shifts to the following morning and the brothers are joined by Henry’s wife Laura and the children, but between them, the brothers can’t carry their father’s coffin alone, and Henry flags down a family leaving the property. Henry asks them to help, but Hap, the head of the family, doesn’t speak. Beside him, his wife Florence looks furious. Bearing in mind that this is the Jim Crow South in the 1940s, and the family are African American, the immediate tension between the two families hints at something terrible.

The film then goes back to 1939, where Henry’s wife Laura begins telling the story of how the family came to the Mississippi farm, her relationship with the brothers, and the arrival of their virulently racist father, Pappy. (He’s the worst. The worrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrst.)

From there, the perspective shifts to Hap’s family, and the dynamics between the McAllens and the Jacksons is striking. Where the McAllens are tense and bicker a lot amongst themselves, all unhappy in their own way, the Jacksons are close and loving, working together despite how horribly their neighbours and society treats them. Hap’s son Ronsel is heading off to fight on the frontlines of WWII and the family are saving up to buy property of their own. There’s a sense of hope.

When he returns from WWII, however, Ronsel is disappointed with what he finds. Abroad, he had a relationship and he was treated as a hero. Back home, he finds that nothing in Mississippi has changed. What’s more, the arrival of the McAllens make the Jacksons worry, and tensions begin to mount when Pappy’s racism drives a wedge between the families.

Shortly there after, Jamie, also a WWII vet, moves in with the rest of his family. He quickly bonds with Ronsel, and both reminisce about how different things were abroad whilst struggling to cope their with PTSD and the racism of the society they find themselves in. Their growing friendship is judged problematic by bigots, and whenever Ronsel and Jamie spend time together, Ronsel is forced to hide from passing cars in case someone sees Jamie giving him a lift. It’s utterly heartbreaking and the sense of injustice carries throughout the film. Eventually, the tensions come to a head between the families, and things go from bad to worse.

Do be aware that Mudbound is really difficult to watch in places, very gritty, and there are numerous racist characters. Ronsel and Jamie were by far my favourite characters, but I adored Hap and Florence, too. Laura was a tough one, but I did really sympathise with her. Above all, this film is an important addition to historical movies and features a wonderful cast. The acting is top notch, the cinematography is gorgeous and the directing is fantastic. I definitely recommend watching it.

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