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Mud bowl

Netflix awards contender wrestles with post-WWII racism

Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund in “Mudbound”

A potent if conventional work, “Mudbound” doesn’t quite fulfill its ambitions. Still, those intentions make it resonate. Its power is undeniable, as are the merits of its craft, and it comes from a young, emerging African-American filmmaker who has a masterpiece brewing somewhere inside her.

Set in the American South of World War II and after, “Mudbound” is a rain-drenched Delta echo of Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” Dust Bowl. Like the Joads, its characters are born into trials far bigger than themselves—so big they’re overwhelming.

This Netflix streaming exclusive is a tale of two families—one white, one black—toiling along the same stretch of Mississippi cotton fields. But their shared hard times fail to bring them together—and bigotry’s right there to keep them apart. However, as the title suggests, the land and its dirty, dense history makes them inextricably linked.

Each has a loved one serving in the war, fighting for that very land. Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) is from the white family; Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) the African-American. Jamie witnesses horrors as a fighter pilot while Ronsel is embraced in Europe as a liberator, enjoying a freedom and equality foreign to him at home.

This is the fourth feature for Dee Rees. “Pariah,” a coming-of-age lesbian story, remains Rees’s best, most personal film to date. Like her breakthrough indie, “Mudbound” boasts stunning images now expanded to an epic scale.

Confident with visuals and tone, Rees is less assured here as a storyteller. Inspired by a novel by Hillary Jordan, Rees relies more on the language of literature (prose) than she should, and not enough on cinema’s toolbox (image, juxtaposition, subtext). Narration by multiple characters, heavy in exposition and description, packs in too much. Despite some beautiful poetry, too, the recurring voice-overs make for a less complex portrait.

Addressing racism, class, PTSD, and more, “Mudbound” is a thematic hodgepodge. Issues are thrown together, not woven. The narrative also juggles too many perspectives. With no true lead, there’s no true focus. The story’s two halves feel like sequential mini-series episodes, centered on different people from the same milieu.

It all crescendos to a truly devastating act of brutality, only to be tagged with a coda that belies that brutality’s plausible extremes.

The cast also produces mixed results. UK-born Carey Mulligan and Australian Jason Clarke aren’t convincing as born-and-bred Southerners; Hedlund, whose acting has never been impressive, is no better. Jonathan Banks chews scenery as the malevolent, racist Pappy.

The best actor here is the least known. Rob Morgan plays the Jackson family patriarch, Hap, with method-level verisimilitude. Mary J. Blige is effectively restrained in her first major role, and Mitchell’s Ronsel bears joy, humiliation, pain, and pathos that ranges in intensity and nuance.

Artfully rendered, “Mudbound” is compelling but not daring nor essential, though it holds the promise of those things. For Rees it’s not a question of whether she’ll achieve those virtues some day—only how soon.

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