"Mudbound," the story of two families - one black, one white - on an emotional collision course in the Mississippi delta in the '40s follows a path as predictable as fall following summer. But, it's how this story is told that gives this Netflix-streaming film - which had a brief, Oscar-qualifying theatrical run, including at iPic Houston, this week - its considerable power.
Based on a novel by Hillary Jordan, who graduated from Highland Park High School in North Texas, and directed by Dee Rees ("Pariah," "Bessie"), it's set in a bifurcated world of race and class that's less "Upstairs, Downstairs" and more just "Downstairs, Downstairs."
The white McAllans - father Henry (Jason Clarke, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"), mother Laura (Carey Mulligan, "Suffragette"), their young children, Henry's adult brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk"), and grandpa Pappy (Jonathan Banks, "Breaking Bad") - don't have much. After all, they're small-time farmers outside the town of Greenville. But they have more than the Jacksons, the black tenants working under them headed by the quiet but strong Hap (Rob Morgan, "Stranger Things") and equally stoic Florence (a phenomenal and unrecognizable Mary J. Blige).
While the McAllans generally are not alarmingly cruel to the Jacksons - Laura takes it upon herself to get Hap the medical attention he needs, for example - no one's going to confuse them with freedom riders either. Both families are wedded to the way things have always been, bound together by tragic tradition, bloody history and the soggy, saturated soil.
But the suffocating shroud of the region's segregationist Jim Crow laws is briefly lifted by a seemingly unrelated event: the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Jamie and the Jacksons' oldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell, "Straight Outta Compton"), are shipped off to war though they're serving different armies as the armed services, too, were divided by race.
However, both men come back forever changed, sending a shock wave through the thick Mississippi air and leading to the film's most horrific act of violence.
"Mudbound" sometimes falls prey to the obvious - the always reliable Banks seems to relish his role as the hateful bigot, but the character is straight out of Klan central casting - and the ubiquity of voiceovers in the first third is slightly distancing. Still, the performances convey a persuasive subtlety that the script itself doesn't always possess. Blige, Morgan, Mulligan (playing a woman trapped in an increasingly loveless marriage), Hedlund and Clarke give the kind of committed turns that make up for weaknesses in the story.
They're helped by Rees and cinematographer Rachel Morrison's sense of place, making the sodden Mississippi landscape a character in its own right (though the film was actually shot in Louisiana).
There's Academy Awards buzz for "Mudbound," and deservedly so, just as there was for the groundbreaking Netflix film "Beast of No Nation" in 2015. But the worthy "Beast" didn't get any Oscar love as mainstream Hollywood back then wanted to keep upstart Netflix at arm's length. Maybe this year, that reserve will turn into a warm embrace.