Dirt poor

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By Noel Vera

Directed by Dees Rees

DEES REES’s Mudbound (2017), adapted from the novel by Hillary Jordan, tells the story of two families — one white the other black — scratching out a living on the Mississippi Delta. Two soldiers come home, one a white officer (captain of a bomber crew), the other a black officer (sergeant and tank commander).

The film has its problems. Rees uses voice-overs to convey inner meditations, a valid enough approach until the umpteenth time you hear them musing Terence Malick-style and you wonder if perhaps the film could have done without; the thoughts are lyrically written but a touch too explicit where a little mystery might have helped draw us in.

This is only Rees’s fourth feature — her first was a documentary on her grandmother, her second a fictionalized autobiography, her third a biopic of singer Bessie Smith — and already you notice two things: 1.) she apparently dislikes repeating herself, not just on subject matter but form and genre, and 2.) she has extended the scope of her work each time by leaps and bounds.

Mudbound is easily her most intimidatingly intricate project yet; two families made up of seven major characters over what seems like the space of five or six years (from 1939 to after World War 2), the setting ranging everywhere from Southern farmland to the skies above Germany — a sprawling ambitious narrative that needs a sure touch, a deft touch, a touch Rees doesn’t quite possess at this moment.

A more serious flaw: I have not read Jordan’s novel and I am not sure if this comes from the source or was imposed on the material by Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams, but while the white family’s troubles are dwarfed by those of the black (this is the Jim Crow South after all), there’s more complexity to the portrayal of the white characters, more ambiguity and shading. Front and center in the drama are the two handsomest: Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund).

Laura quietly states that she’s a virgin; all the more shocking when she’s married and brought from a comfortable middle class neighborhood to the muddy terrain of Mississippi. We’re constantly inside Laura’s skin; we feel her flinch in horror at the poverty surrounding her, at the cruelty meted out to tenant farmers black and white; we empathize with her angry insistence in hauling in her piano from the rain (they had just arrived at their little shack of a home) — the only “civilized” object in that godforsaken landscape (Jane Campion’s The Piano much?). As Mulligan plays her, she’s a pale palimpsest on which soil and wind and the men in her life leave their mark.

Jamie, like Laura, is a constant witness to the film’s swerves and twists; he’s the first to really notice Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) not as a black man wearing a uniform (an affront to most Southern gentlemen), but a former soldier unsure of his footing in the alien world he’s landed on. Jamie and Laura develop a tentative attraction, but it’s Jamie’s budding friendship with Ronsel that matters — two men wary at first, then comfortable enough to share vulnerabilities, finally willing to lay one’s life (or more) for the other.

We see through Ronsel’s eyes almost as often as we see through Jamie’s — the difference is where Jamie gazes at a subtle palette of hues, Ronsel squints at dramatic black and white, white being the more threatening color. It’s not the actor’s fault; Mitchell, Florence (Mary J. Bilge) his mother, and Hap (Rob Morgan) his father pose against the desolate landscape more like monuments to endurance and suffering than flawed human beings. They wear their nobility lightly about their shoulders, but fail to really come to life.

That said, it is odd that the most egregious example of undercharacterization happens to be Henry, Laura’s husband. As incarnated by Jason Clarke he’s more lump than a man, oblivious of everything including his wife’s pain and his brother’s flickering attraction for her, and so inert he has to be shunted out of town to allow the more dramatic scenes to take place (at least it feels that way).

Jonathan Banks doesn’t play Henry’s Pappy with any more nuance than Clarke does Henry, yet the actor that burned a hole in the small screen in shows like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul — though I really first noticed him in Wiseguy — can’t help but make Pappy a charismatic if cartoonish monster, like the wizened version of Dennis Hopper in an episode of The Twilight Zone.

All of which seems strangely irrelevant towards film’s end, when narrative strands have fully unraveled and the different people blindly following have tangled — some fatally — with each other. Mudbound ends in melodrama but not quite cheap melodrama; you do develop feelings for the characters, even the ones wrapped in virtuous garb, and you do feel compelled to learn of their respective fates. It is a powerful film when all is said and done, and Rees does show skill in weaving the strands into a strong unslippable noose. If I’m left more moved than admiring — well I’m reminded of another World War 2 film done by a woman, Janice O’Hara’s Sundalong Kanin (Rice Soldiers): she had the opportunity and only limited time and she struck; better a flawed work done in haste and the heat of passion (she must have reasoned) than a cold lifeless piece of unfinished perfection — at least that’s how it played out in this case.