"Mudbound," a sprawling World War II-era drama by Dee Rees, plays like great literature on the screen. Adapted by Rees and fellow screenwriter Virgil Williams from a novel by Hillary Jordan, this audaciously old-school movie harks back to the novels of Faulkner and Steinbeck, the films of William Wyler and John Ford. This is a big movie, about big emotions and ideas, which Rees evokes and explores through an extraordinarily rich tapestry of atmosphere, physical setting, visual detail and sensitive, subtle performances.
Put most simply, "Mudbound" is about two families working the same patch of land in the Mississippi Delta, an unforgiving place where dreams go to die or be indefinitely and cruelly deferred. Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), a comer with a restless sense of ambition and a demure wife named Laura (Carey Mulligan), takes possession of his plot while his brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is off fighting in the war. He brings Laura, along with his virulently angry father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), to a godforsaken farm where he's convinced his fortunes lie. The McAllans' neighbors, the Jacksons, have been there longer: Their patriarch, Hap (Rob Morgan), is a laconic, knowing descendant of enslaved laborers who for generations have "worked this land that would never be theirs."
Hap is married to Florence, portrayed in an astonishing performance by the musician Mary J. Blige, who disappears so thoroughly into her regal, inscrutable character that viewers may not recognize her until the final credits roll. The Jacksons' son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) is also in Europe fighting; when he and Jamie return, they discover a kinship in shared trauma all the more meaningful for Ronsel, having just helped liberate a continent, only to return to a homeland mired in Jim Crow racism.
Narrated by each character in shifting turns, "Mudbound" presents a fascinating exercise in perspective and narrative focus, weaving in and out of the two families' stories and the constantly changing dynamics of dominance and dependence, all of it set against a backdrop of poverty and the unforgiving forces of nature. As a portrait of race, class and complex social tectonics, "Mudbound" brings welcome nuance to such dispiriting modern-day catchphrases as "blood and soil." Here, those aren't notional but brutally literal, as the McAllans and Jacksons grapple with the shared burdens of dispossession and the infuriatingly ingrained structures that impede one family's progress while allowing just the slightest hope of mobility for the other.
As tempting as it is to encounter "Mudbound" as a sociopolitical text, that reading sells short a film that unfolds with the time, space and scope audiences rarely see anymore. Rees, whose one and only feature film until now was her 2011 debut, "Pariah," has said she set out to make an "old-fashioned" movie, and she's done that, allowing her story to unspool at a refreshingly deliberate pace and her characters to find their own footing within the story and with one another. Enlisting such gifted collaborators as cinematographer Rachel Morrison, costume designer Michael T. Boyd and production designer David J. Bomba, Rees creates an environment rich with texture and metaphor, as the refined Laura seeks to civilize her forbidding environs with an out-of-place piano and tatty signifiers of "good taste," and Florence, long having made a kind of peace with her reality, makes a warm, welcoming home from pieces of rough wood and a few scraps of newspaper. Prosperity, the film seems to suggest, need not be simply a matter of Darwinian mutual destruction; it can also be defined in terms of community, care and mutual trust.
Although Jamie and Ronsel's friendship gives "Mudbound" the wings of hope, it's Laura and Florence's uneasy relationship that grounds it in a fascinating reality: Rarely have the finely calibrated alliances, betrayals and subterfuges between white women and women of color been so subtly addressed and drawn out. "Mudbound" is the kind of juicy multicharacter saga that can be enjoyed on its own emotionally affecting, sometimes melodramatic terms. But it's also an exceptionally sophisticated primer on the unseen biases, blind spots, self-mythologies and outright lies that have been passed down over centuries, creating the very bubbles of misunderstandings and erasures that vex American culture today.
As an evocation of the aspiration, violence and tribal animus that forged our national identity, "Mudbound" is an eloquent, often painful, reminder of Faulkner's own observation that the past is never really past. But Rees isn't content simply to diagnose a punishing, self-perpetuating cycle: This is a film buoyed by humanism that feels chastening, liberating and healing, all at the same time. As one character notes, love itself is a form of survival. Against all the elements, natural and man-made, Rees makes sure that hope takes pride of place in "Mudbound" and is never entirely swamped.
R. At Landmark's West End Cinema. Also available via Netflix streaming. Contains some disturbing violence, brief strong language and nudity. 134 minutes.