We tend to think of loneliness as synonymous with being alone, but it’s actually quite different. Loneliness has far less to do with a lack of physical presence of other people, than it does with a lack of mental and emotional connection with other people. As Mudbound shows, in some ways it can be even more isolating to be surrounded by others if those people don’t understand who you are or where you’ve been. This film is so crowded with loneliness that some of the characters seem to be in danger of drowning in it.
Based on the book of the same name by Hillary Jordan, the new film on Netflix tells the story of two families in the World War II-era south. The McAllan family, a white family who owns a farm in Mississippi; and the Jackson family, a Black family sharecropping on the land. Each has sent a family member to war – Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) is in planes and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) is in tanks – but though the two young men are united in cause overseas, the two families are struggling to find common ground in the Jim Crow south. When the two men return home, the overall battle to find one’s way out of loneliness expands and becomes even more stark.
Much of Mudbound is overlain with narration, and although that could have been a cheesy gimmick, it works here on a few different levels. It allows characters to express their thoughts directly to the audience, illustrating the film’s central seclusion without relying on dialogue or connection with another character. Since the narrative perspective varies from person-to-person, it also offers insight into the perspectives of all of the characters, and in some cases unexpected empathy regarding their motivations. Lastly, the narration is the most poetic, lyrical writing in the film, and its loveliness sits in stark juxtaposition on top of the film’s grittier imagery.
That same imagery serves as a reminder that even though Mudbound is set in the lifetimes of many of our grandparents, it feels like it could have been much, much longer than seven decades ago. From the barely concealed presence of the Ku Klux Klan, to the overt sexism, to the lack of indoor plumbing and electricity, the ways in which this setting does or doesn’t feel familiar are most definitely part of the story and experience.
It may be partially the period nature of the setting, along with the large cast of characters that makes Mudbound feel a bit epic in nature, and if there’s a flaw in this exceptionally good film, it’s that it could have been framed in a more “epic” way. This story seems more suited to a miniseries of at least four hours, and the cast –particularly stand outs Mary J. Blige, Carey Mulligan, Hedlund, and Mitchell could have carried that weight. The film could have carried it too. As it was, the pacing and depth are fine but could have been stretched differently to better effect. A movie that was grim all of the way through takes an exceptionally dark turn just prior to the end before lightening a bit and ending on a satisfying – but certainly not false – note.
Halfway through watching this film, I started to think about the different uses of the term “bound”: stuck and destined. Maybe the two aren’t so different, but I wondered if one or the other was the intended use for Mudbound: one feels like the present and the other feels like the future. Given the central themes of Mudbound, maybe in this context, there really isn’t any difference at all.