THE thing about mud is it's unrelenting. It sticks to everything, bogs down everything and imbues everything with a sense of hopelessness.
That's something to keep in mind with Mudbound, an epic tale of two families in post-World War II Mississippi, bonded by an unforgiving land, prejudice and unlikely friendship.
This beautifully composed film engrosses from the first frame to the last, breathtaking in its humanity and its ability to build out a fully realised world that never feels antiquated despite its 1940s period setting.
Directed by Dee Rees (Pariah, Bessie), Mudbound dropped on Netflix on Friday as part of its expanding line-up of original films, and it's easily one of the best movies the streaming service has served up so far. Expect this to be an Oscar contender.
When Laura (Carey Mulligan) marries Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) it's not because she loves him. She's over 30 and staring down the barrel of spinsterhood.
Henry has always harboured dreams of working his own land and he moves his family from a comfortable suburban home to a farm in the Mississippi Delta, along with his recently widowed and viciously racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks).
The McAllans subsist in a rickety house with no plumbing or electricity and the mud in front of their stoop never dries, always squelching underfoot. The cotton fields regularly floods from the unyielding rain and the farm's only way out, a wooden bridge, is submerged with every storm.
The tenant farmers on the land are the Jacksons, Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their brood of children. Generations of the Jacksons have worked this piece of cruel land, mostly as slaves.
Despite their differences, their fortunes are tied together, and at the whims of Mother Nature.
When the war ends, the Jacksons' oldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) returns from Europe, as does Henry's charismatic brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), a fighter pilot that faced horrors in the sky.
Ronsel and Jamie bond over their war experiences and form a forbidden friendship in the Jim Crow-era of segregation in the American south.
The racial politics of Mudbound are stark. The generational attitudes of the Jacksons are a perfect example of the shifting social mores of its time. The older Hap is still reverent to white folk, out of fear. He wants a better life but also says to his son: "Don't fight them, you're not going to win."
The younger Ronsel can't reconcile the injustice of being forced out the backdoor of the general store in his home after serving his country on the frontline, and being respected and welcome in Europe.
And Pappy? Well, he's a mean, old son of a bitch.
The beauty in Mudbound isn't just what's on the screen - it's what's not shown, or said. Every performance is remarkably restrained, especially Blige, whose face is enigmatic yet completely revealing.
Mudbound may be a thoughtful portrayal of struggle but it always remembers its soul and it's never a hard slog to watch. Part of that is because of the incredible cinematography by Rachel Morrison.
Despite the almost saga-like quality to its story, Mudbound doesn't insist, nor does it impose - it simply and brilliant lays out the hopes and tragedies of people not so different from each other.
Mudbound is streaming now on Netflix.
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