Life and death in the delta

A powerful and timely social drama set in 1940s Mississippi

Starring Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke and Mary J. Blige. Directed by Dee Rees. Netflix. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Mudbound, currently streaming on Netflix and showing in a few theaters nationally, is a powerful social drama in a period setting (rural Mississippi in the 1940s), and its portrayals of war, sex, labor economics, community and racism pack a contemporary wallop that is both incisive and haunting.

Working from an adaptation of a novel by Hillary Jordan, director/ co-writer Dee Rees (Pariah, Bessie) has mounted a richly detailed multi-character saga about two families, one white and one black, who work and live on the same stretch of Deep South farmland in a decade convulsed in more ways than one by World War II.

Henry (Jason Clarke), the older son of the McAllan family (who are white), has ambitions of rising above the Depression-era tenant-farming status of his father (a snarling Jonathan Banks) by acquiring farmland of his own. He courts and marries Laura (Carey Mulligan), the inexplicably neglected daughter from a sniffy, well-to-do family. Laura proves a conventional good wife, but there’s no missing the mutual attraction that begins to emerge between her and Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), Henry’s charming younger brother.

The Jacksons, who are black, are headed up by stalwart Florence (Mary J. Blige) and her husband, Hap (Rob Morgan), who serves as a kind of lay minister for a fledgling congregation of neighboring black families. Their son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) is a modest but unmistakably upright young man among the field hands.

Racial injustice becomes a central dramatic issue by way of the McAllan boys’ irrevocably bigoted father. But Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams also give special emphasis to the brothers’ shifting relations with Laura and with each other. And the real heart of the film, its single most compelling drama, develops by way of the post-war relationship that forms between two returning veterans, Jamie and Ronsel.

The performances of Hedlund and Mitchell are the best of a very good bunch, and their respective characterizations gain special gravity and range by virtue of their centrality to the film’s key scene of racial violence and the bursts of combat action that come via flashbacks and reminiscences.

Figuratively speaking, Rees’ film wears its heart on its sleeve, but it mostly steers clear of predictable agitprop behavior in its major characters. The one glaring exception to that is “Pappy” McAllan (Banks), whose single-note villainy seems a strange waste of an actor fully capable of the more nuanced and incisive portraiture that prevails almost everywhere else in this remarkable film’s mixtures of the epical and the intimate.