Dirty hands and complex lives in “Mudbound”

“Mudbound” is a film that will be sold on its relevance. Its socio-political significance. Its timeliness. This will not be an unfair estimation. “Mudbound,” an adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name, premiered last week on Netflix. Centrally, or at least thematically, the story is about the levels of racism in 1940s Mississippi. Tales of race turmoil are always relevant. But the film is not only about race. Before race enters the picture, it’s about the way we get dirty.

“When I think of the farm, I think of mud. Encrusting knees and hair. Marching in boot shaped patches across the floor. I dreamed in brown.”

These are not the first words spoken in the film but they are the first ones which register enough to provide context. Carey Mulligan, playing matriarch Laura who says the lines, knows it as she puts the requisite emotion into speaking the lines. Dee Rees, directing her second feature film after her electrifying debut, “Pariah,” also knows it as she directs the brief moment with enough import for us to get it. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison shoots them in a way that we know she gets it. The line ends on a wide shot of the same farm. The brownness overwhelms the screen and the dun colours are almost sickening to watch. This is no picturesque pastoral dreamscape, but a gloomy, muddy broken-down hell.

The quote is taken directly from the novel of the same name. Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams have shown astonishing fidelity in their adaptation. But the line is a good one. Five minutes into the movie it announces itself as a metaphorical rendering of the film’s central thesis. This will be a film in brown; a tale of lives with little colour but ones which are consumed by the sad, aimlessness of a pain.

On a simple level, the plot is straightforward. Laura, a schoolteacher, marries a nice, but not particularly charming man out of fear of becoming an old maid. He upends their domestic life in Memphis to move to a farm because he loves the land. Swindled out of their house, they end up living poorly with their two daughters and the husband’s despicable father. This white family comes into contact with a black family. They are sharecroppers on the farm; a religious man, his wife and their four children. Their son is fighting in Germany in the war, as is Laura’s brother-in-law, Jamie. Tensions that already were mounting bubble over when the two soldiers return home wounded from the war to deal with the growing racial tension in Mississippi. It is not a question of if things will end tragically, but when and how.

The title is evocative and ambiguous in its excellence. Is it that the characters are bound for mud? That mud is ultimately what they are all destined to be consumed by? Instead of a journey to home, they live a journey to mud? Or is it that mud is what binds them? For all their varying differences, their love, their hate, their poverty – the thing that keeps them together is the sticky, dirty mud. Both readings make sense.

“Mudbound” will be something of a Rorschach test. What do you see when you look at the mud? Something that holds you back or something that you can hold on to? When a critic friend of mine said that he found the film aimless and convoluted, I understood exactly what he meant, even though I liked the film significantly more. “Mudbound” is very constructed in its development and it does meander. For me, though, the meandering is essential to its tone and its theme. The film eschews plot in favour of a languorous contemplation of a life lived in the dirt. The greatest credit to Rees and her team is the way they manage to pack a great deal of content into only two hours. Watching “Mudbound,” you feel that there is more that we could know about each of its six main characters – the two farmers, their wives, and the soldiers in their homes – but the film is also generous to each of the six so we understand their motivations, even as they are never in harmony with each other.

The film is such a holistic unit plaudits seem at first unfair. The realistically battered costume and production design are only improved by the brown dun of the cinematography, which only works because of the mystical editing which ensures that no actor is short-changed. The cast is also uniformly good, with some more consistently than others. Although the film keeps her on the edges of the central conflict, Mulligan registers most as she excellently distils Laura’s poignant dismay at a world she did not imagine. I’d call Garrett Hedlund as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder sufferer Jamie a favourite for navigating an especially tricky character and for being the most important thing holding the film’s frenetic climax together.

The overt, and bloody, climax of the film belies the world where the characters live lives that are charged with emotions, but always beneath the surface. It’s where “Mudbound” is best. In moments where tensions abound, but civility and niceties mean that words must be muted. Like moments where a character must bite their tongue, instead of shouting disapproval. Or moments where two mothers must hold each other, silently, to mourn the tragedy of another. “Mudbound,” in its very literary way, privileges subtext over text. And as the film year hurtles to a close, focusing on the film’s text – race drama – might be more politically advantageous but to miss its nuanced gradations would be a loss.

If “Mudbound” buckles under the pressure of its own gargantuan nature, who can really hold it against it? The film will be sold on the macro theme of racial tension, but, perhaps, it’s not really about racism. Instead, it might really about the way that poverty consumes those who experience it and the way a common tragedy can rupture relationships. Or, maybe it is about the futility of war – domestic and global. The original story is about many things. The film adaptation is just as complex, and with complexity comes potential liabilities. It’s painful but sometimes too uncertain. Sometimes, I wish it went further. Its beauty is occasionally marred by its looseness. Of course that loose aimlessness is part of its point. You cannot quite predict how various beats will land, or which character you will feel sympathy for. Like the mud, it makes you feel dirty and you cannot quite wash it off. It’s not a comfortable feeling. But, movies are not always meant for comfort. “Mudbound” never comforts, but it compels you to identify with its world. Ultimately, it succeeds.

 

Have a comment? Write to Andrew at almasydk@gmail.com

 

 

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