DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The writer-director Dee Rees made her feature debut with the 2011 teen coming-out drama "Pariah," followed by her 2015 Emmy-winning HBO movie "Bessie" starring Queen Latifah. The latest feature by Dee Rees, "Mudbound," unfolds in the American South during World War II and features an ensemble cast that includes Mary J. Blige, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell and Carey Mulligan. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: A sweeping epic of racial discord set in the Mississippi Delta during the 1940s, "Mudbound" is easily one of the year's most ambitious American movies, though it's unusually restrained and telegraphing its ambitions. The director, Dee Rees, adapting a 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, doesn't announce her weighty themes at the outset.
This sad, sometimes unbearably violent story about what happens when ingrained prejudice and wartime trauma collide feels so true and irreducible that it might've welled up from the very landscape itself. It's a beautiful landscape but a terrible one, too, a harsh, unyielding world where blinding sun alternates with pounding rain, where cloudy skies stretch ominously over acres of dust, grass and, yes, mud. Crops are scarce, money even scarcer.
A wife and mother named Laura McAllan, soulfully played by the British actress Carey Mulligan, describes the everyday hardship of life in the delta in all its tedium and brutality.
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CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Laura McAllan) Violence is part and parcel of country life. You're forever being assailed by dead things - dead mice, dead rabbits, dead possums. You find them in the yard. You smell them rotting under the house. And then they the creatures you kill for food. Chickens, hogs, deer, frogs, squirrels. Pluck, skin, disembowel, debone, fry, eat, start again, kill.
CHANG: Laura is one of many narrators we hear throughout the movie, which Rees wrote with Virgil Williams. If all those voices make for a somewhat unwieldy juggling act, they also give the film a rich, symphonic quality reminiscent of the multiple perspectives Faulkner used in "As I Lay Dying."
We hear from Laura about how she was uprooted from Memphis to live in a cramped Mississippi farmhouse with her sturdy but naive husband, Henry, played by Jason Clarke and her nasty, irredeemably racist father-in-law Pappy, played by Jonathan Banks.
But we also hear from the Jacksons, a family of black sharecroppers farming cotton on a small corner of the McAllans' land. Rob Morgan plays the hard-working, God-fearing Jackson patriarch Hap, while the R&B artist Mary J. Blige gets a quietly revelatory performance as his resilient wife, Florence. Jason Mitchell, so memorable in "Straight Outta Compton," is terrific here as Ronsel, the eldest and most outspoken of the Jackson children. The equal time we spend with the McAllans and the Jacksons is crucial to the scrupulous democratic nature of Rees's method, which gives black and white characters the same moral and dramatic weight.
One of the movie's points is that war is the great equalizer. And in the heat of battle, death doesn't discriminate based on skin color. Shortly after Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, Ronsel joins the war effort and is soon marching on Germany as part of the mostly African-American 761st Tank Battalion. Meanwhile, Henry's headstrong younger brother Jamie, played by Garrett Hedlund, becomes a fighter pilot.
The military may be segregated, but "Mudbound" demolishes the gap cinematically, cutting between the two soldiers and also between their families as they toil alongside each other, anxiously awaiting news from overseas. After the war, Ronsel actually finds life more hospitable for a black man in Germany than it is back in Mississippi. Not long after returning home, he's exiting the local general store when he has an ill-timed confrontation with Pappy and Henry McAllan.
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JONATHAN BANKS: (As Pappy McAllan) You use the back door.
JASON CLARKE: (As Henry McAllan) Go on, son. We don't want no trouble here. Go on. Go on.
JASON MITCHELL: (As Ronsel Jackson) You know what? You're absolutely right. When we was overseas, they didn't make us use the back door. General Patton put us on the front line. Yes, sir. You know what we did? We kicked the hell out of Hitler and them Germans, while y'all at home safe and sound.
CHANG: When a black man tells off a white man in the Jim Crow South, you can expect that some grim consequences are in store. And Hap, who has learned to survive by keeping his head down, urges his son to apologize to the McAllans. But Ronsel's speech is still a hugely satisfying moment, the kind that can cause an entire theater to burst into collective applause.
"Mudbound," alas, is only opening in 17 theaters nationwide. And while that's considered a generous allowance for a Netflix release, it also does the movie a profound disservice. In an era of white nationalist marches and Black Lives Matter protests, a picture like "Mudbound" demands the kind of engagement that only a big screen and a packed house can confer.
It's only after the story has reached its harrowing yet graceful finale that you're aware of just how carefully Rees and her actors have worked out the different relationships between the characters. The movie's most significant and radical relationship is the one that develops between Jamie and Ron Ronsel, two PTSD-plagued vets who become surprisingly fast friends, in defiance of every social norm they know.
In these moments, "Mudbound" leaves us with a devastating yet powerfully consoling suggestion - when you've witnessed unthinkable horrors abroad, it becomes that much harder to endure them at home.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic at the Los Angeles Times. On Monday's show, oligarchs from Russia and former Soviet bloc countries who became business partners with Donald Trump. We talked with Jake Bernstein, whose new book is about the Panama papers, leaked documents from a Panamanian law firm that created thousands of offshore shell companies where corporations and wealthy individuals, including some of those oligarchs, hid their money. Hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY TERRASSON'S "LA VIE EN ROSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.