Mudbound

Rob Morgan, left, plays Hap Jackson and New Orleans native Jason Mitchell plays Ronsel Jackson in 'Mudbound.'

Contributed story by Steve Dietl

A film festival favorite since it screened at Sundance in January, “Mudbound” tells a sweeping story about two families: one black, one white, both dwelling in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s.

The New Orleans Film Festival’s Centerpiece film, “Mudbound” screens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Ace Hotel New Orleans and 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, at the New Orleans Jazz Market.

In the Delta after World War II, the McAllan and Jackson families are divided by race, united by land. Legislated, Jim Crow-era injustice and widespread racism oppresses the Jacksons. The McAllans, however, aren’t immune to strife or to the demands of the muddy land.

Writer-director Dee Rees’ adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel contains powerful moments and loads of atmosphere. The screenplay by Rees (“Pariah,” “Bessie”) and Virgil Williams (TV’s “Criminal Minds” and “ER”) preserves the novel’s beautiful writing. Tracing the book’s literary example, the characters periodically express themselves in resigned voice-overs. As unsentimental and melancholy as their words are, it’s a pleasure to hear such well-sketched characters speak their minds.

“Mudbound” is big, mostly assured filmmaking. The story bluntly, sometimes graphically, tackles subjects that continue to plague American society. One particularly wrenching sequence of cruelty may be too difficult for some moviegoers to watch.

The McAllan family’s move from Memphis, Tennessee to Mississippi sets “Mudbound” in motion.

“I bought a farm,” Henry tells his wife, Laura, out of the blue. “We’re moving in three weeks.”

Henry's worldlier younger brother, Jamie, explains that Henry believes he will always get what he wants. As “Mudbound” follows a path that feels predestined, even Henry’s arrogance eventually erodes.

Henry and Laura meet in 1939. At 31, she is officially an old maid. Laura initially sees Henry as a liberator, the husband who’ll free her from a disapproving mother.

Jason Clarke plays Henry with a bullheadedness that guarantees audiences won’t pity the character. Carey Mulligan co-stars as the long-suffering Laura.

Early in the film, a hint of the life Laura might have led comes when Henry introduces her to Jamie. On the town together for dinner and dancing, Henry, Jamie and Laura exchange stories and pleasantries.

Jamie is a handsome, charming actor up from Oxford, Mississippi. He seems a much better match for Laura than Henry. When Laura returns from a dance with Jamie, her husband-to-be, Henry, says, “You look especially pretty tonight. Jamie has that effect on girls. They sparkle for him.”

Skipping forward six years, Henry, Laura and their two children are in the Delta. No one there sparkles.

Jamie, played by Garrett Hedlund, visits his brother’s family after his fighter pilot service in World War II. Ronsel Jackson, the oldest son of the sharecropping Jackson family, returns to Mississippi, too. Both men suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Ronsel, played by New Orleans native Jason Mitchell, served as a sergeant in a U.S. Army tank battalion in Europe. He experienced freedom in Europe of the kind he’d never had in the Delta. The two veterans form an interracial friendship that white neighbors disdain.

Ronsel and the Jackson family’s story intertwines with the McAllans’ story. Amid difficult circumstances, Hap and Florence Jackson do the best they can for their family. A realistic man, Hap, (Rob Morgan) nonetheless tempers his resignation about the way life is, and has been for generations, with hope that better days will come. Despite his lifelong toil as a sharecropper, Hap dreams of farming his own land.

“One morning soon,” part-time preacher Hap says as he leads the service in a ramshackle church.

Mary J. Blige, a singer with many acting credits, co-stars as the Jackson family’s resilient matriarch. Florence adapts when necessary, always with her family’s well-being in mind. A thoughtful woman of few words, she doesn’t bring attention to herself. Blige’s quietly sturdy performance embodies the character she plays. The character and the actress are well matched.

“Mudbound” is a dense ensemble piece, but Mitchell’s Ronsel is a pivotal character. Ronsel and Jamie both find postwar Mississippi a difficult adjustment. Because he’s a young black man in Mississippi, Ronsel suffers the most. This disillusioned veteran is another role Mitchell can add to his growing list of memorable characters.

Unfortunately, Ronsel’s and Jamie’s war scenes are the weakest sequences in “Mudbound.” In contrast to the muddy authenticity and deliberate tempo in the Mississippi scenes, the war sequences look rushed and staged. Better to have mostly referred to war in voice-over, an approach that works well elsewhere in “Mudbound.”

Flaws aside, Rees and her behind-the-camera collaborators and high-achieving cast accomplish an undeniably affecting, largely successful drama. Many will consider it one of this year’s award-worthy projects.

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“Mudbound’’

***½

STARRING: Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund

DIRECTOR: Dee Rees

RUNNING TIME: 2 hrs., 14 mins.

MPAA RATING: R (Restricted) Under 17 requires accompanying parents or adult guardian.

WHY IS THIS MOVIE RATED R? For some disturbing violence, brief language and nudity.

Excellent (****), Good (***), Fair (**), Poor (*)

INFO: neworleansfilmsociety.org