Mudbound review: This post-war American epic is a beautifully shot exploration of race, gender and trauma

Melissa York
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When they called this film Mudbound, they weren’t kidding. This wartime epic is caked in the stuff, opening with two brothers slipping and sliding as they furiously dig their father’s grave in torrential rain.

The brown stuff, smeared over every cheek, buried in every fingernail, brings a tactile griminess to the Mississippi Delta. The Macallans, a white middle class family in 1940s America, follow their dream of running their own farm.

Soon after they arrive, matriarch Laura says she “dreams in brown”, so morose is the reality of working the land. In their employ is a black family, The Jacksons, who mirror their struggles to get by but in subtly significant ways. When a Macallan has a fever, for instance, the Jacksons are expected to jump up and help, but when a Jackson breaks his leg, they’re expected to rent a horse – from the Macallans – and get back to work.

Jonathan Banks does a fine job, too, imbuing ageing Klansman Pappy Macallan with a real sense of menace.

Director Dee Rees takes a hands-off approach; the camera keeps a respectful distance and the narrative jumps from host to host. Netflix – the film’s distributor, although it’s also showing in Curzon cinemas – has assembled a cast that’s up to the job, from Carey Mulligan as Laura, pining for civillisation away from the sludge, to Mary J Blige as her steely counterpart Florence Jackson. Jonathan Banks does a fine job, too, imbuing ageing Klansman Pappy Macallan with a real sense of menace.

Where it differs from other films exploring similar themes is how non-judgmental it all is; the Jacksons, as well as the Macallans, are presented as products of their environment. “You might be one of the good ones,” says Ronsel Jackson, after a wary friendship with Jamie Macallan.

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The pacing is superb, ratcheting up the tension for a terrifying final 15 minutes. An unforgiving portrait of a post-war America in flux, Mudbound is another worthwhile film from the burgeoning movie powerhouse that is Netflix.

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