"When I think of the farm, I think of mud. Encrusted knees and hair, marching in boot-shaped patches across the floor. I dreamed in brown."
There’s a big part of me that’s ashamed I ended up watching Mudbound on a small screen. Dee Rees’ new feature-length film, an adaptation of the novel by Hillary Jordan. After premiering at Sundance, it became the subject of an intense bidding war that resulted in the distribution rights being bought by Netflix. The streaming giant has gone all in on original content and distribution, using their exclusivity to continue generating business and content as other global media corporations seek to launch their own services. Netflix films have been released with comparatively little fanfare (the Grand Jury prize winner of Sundance, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore dropped onto the platform in February and registered nary a blip, with Bong Joon-ho’s Okja also not succeeding in moving the needle all that much), as they seemed content with simply putting it up on the service and setting up a few awards qualifying runs in New York and LA and leaving it at that. In this case, though, there’s been more pressure on Netflix to give it some kind of run-out in theaters, perhaps to increase its chances in end of the year awards. Amazon hit it big with Manchester By the Sea last year, and while that movie eventually made its way to their Prime streaming service, it got a full theatrical release beforehand. Netflix isn’t pivoting to that model, but a bigger presence in traditional theaters might help its push for more consideration in the future.
The film ended up opening on thirteen screens across America the same day it was added to Netflix (and thoroughly overshadowed by the first season of The Punisher, premiering the same day), and we’ll see how long it lasts there. Still, thirteen theaters is better than one or zero, and after having watched the film, I am deeply disappointed that my first experience wasn’t on the sort of giant screen a movie like this deserves. A sweeping, emotional epic, the film follows the lives of two families, the McAllens and the Jacksons. Henry McAllen (Jason Clarke) has taken his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) to farmland in Mississippi alongside his younger, kinder brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and his hate-filled father Pappy (Jonathan Banks). The Jacksons are tenant farmers on the land, with father Hap (Rob Morgan) and mother Florence (Mary J. Blige) looking after their family while working the farm. Jamie and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) both enlist and go to Europe to fight in World War 2, and they return from the war changed men, united in their experiences and divided by their skin color.
It’s a timeless premise: parallel families living parallel lives from across the racial divide in pre-Civil Rights America. Sure, the Jacksons aren’t slaves, but they aren’t far off. They live on the farm as a family and work to pay for their stay and their food, but it’s not like there’s any chance for savings or upward mobility. And they remain pariahs in their homes and their towns. It’s the way a man can risk his life fighting for his country in World War 2, only to come back and be forced to use the back door to exit a general store. Not for any real purpose, but simply as an exercise of power. Sure, Jason Clarke may not be as outwardly cruel and punishing as Jonathan Banks, but he implicitly and explicitly supports and reinforces that power dynamic by refusing to get in the way. It catches those with compassion and a sense of right and wrong in the middle, aware of the injustice but powerless to affect change.
So when someone like Jamie, wracked with PTSD from losing colleagues and nearly dying in the war that brought to his knees by a truck engine backfiring, sees Ronsel, a fellow veteran, as more of a human than a second-class colored citizen, he becomes just as much of a pariah in the process. But he can recover. All he has to do is spit in the face of his fellow serviceman to placate the desires of his virulently racist father and stern family-first brother. Both he and Ronsel have seen a world outside this little slice of the South, one where black and white don’t have the same meaning. That makes it all the more heartbreaking to come back as conquering heroes to a culture that couldn't care less and still focuses solely on the color of their skin. They’re shackled to this run-down farm, flooded with every rain and choked with mud that makes the soil borderline useless. But that’s their lot in life even if they face this hardship for little reason beyond stubbornness. It all feels achingly real, and for those of us of the white persuasion, achingly shameful and uncomfortable, a reminder that the Civil War didn’t end anything no matter what we may believe.
Mudbound is a towering achievement, the sort of film that wrenches your heart until it can take no more. It demands your attention and feels astonishingly brisk and engrossing despite its two hour, fifteen minute run time. The ensemble is pitch-perfect, from Clarke’s forcefulness to Hedlund’s vulnerability to Mitchell discovering that nothing has changed despite what he just went through. It bites off a lot, between examining the racial divide in the South, the hardship of sharecropping on all sides, and the fear and confusion of returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder that everyone thinks is just weakness or a phase you can get over. Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams treat all of the disparate elements with the care and poise they deserve, creating a rich tapestry of life in the 1940’s, warts and all. There’s an overwhelming truth to Mudbound, and it is by no means an easy sit, but it is endlessly rewarding. This is the sort of movie that will stick with you for years, and undoubtedly the best piece of original content Netflix has ever acquired. If you can see it on a big screen, as I couldn’t, do so. But at least you can see it. And see it you must.