The title of Mudbound has several meanings, but one is conveyed clearly in the very first scene.
White Mississippi farming brothers in the late 1940s are struggling during a downpour to bury their father. They discover in the drenched pit the bones of former slaves, which brings them up short — their racist "pappy" wouldn't want to share eternal rest with the people he hated in life.
The opening image asks us conflate physical futility of the enterprise — the hole fills with mud as soon as the men scoop it out — with the moral futility of sorting souls the way the Jim Crow South sorted human beings.
The scene has an absurdity that is almost comical, but there is nothing funny about Mudbound, adapted from the Hillary Jordan novel and premiering on Netflix Friday as well as in theaters, about white and black families working a Mississippi farm. You're made to be aware of the movie's literary source — stylized voice-overs by multiple narrators, starting with Laura (Carey Mulligan), a woman who sidesteps spinsterhood by marrying a stolid farmer Henry (Jason Clarke), who chafes under the criticism of his hateful father (Jonathan Banks), and lives in the shadow of his more popular brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund).
This story is also told from the perspective Hap (Stranger Things' Rob Morgan), a black tenant on the farm who works his own land but is expected to set aside his priorities to assist the owners when needed, which is often. This burdensome expectation comes from baked-in racism, tied to economic leverage — Henry can dictate rental terms to Hap, and can alter these terms to coerce Hap into providing emergency labor. Hap has the hope — illusion? — that he's one good year and harvest away from independence, but that harvest never comes, and one year melts into the next.
Cowriter and director Dee Rees (Pariah, Bessie) does a skillful job making us feel these inequities as they take place over time and become the fabric of lives, the basis of the assumptions people make about race and culture — the way things are. Aiding her is a fine cast, including Mary J. Blige as Hap's wife, called upon to leave her own family to nurse Laura's sick babies back to health.
There is a welcome subtlety to this — Laura sees the coercion involved, but the way she herself is subjugated to her husband's authority means that she can't do much about it (she doesn't even have the standing, we see, to help the poor white farm laborers).
The story broadens to follow Hap's son Ronsel (Straight Outta Compton's Jason Mitchell) and Jamie as they go off to war — Ronsel as part of the tank crew, and Jamie as a bomber pilot. They bond back home, both veterans, both witnesses to a wider, fairer world. Their friendship threatens the social order, violence looms.
When it finally arrives, like something out of a graphic horror movie, Mudbound seems briefly to lose its footing. While the events are certainly in line with historical reality, they feel out of step with the rest of the movie, and certainly with the jarringly upbeat epilogue.