'Mudbound' lifts Netflix with look at race, class divides

Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund in 'Mudbound'

(CNN)Elevating Netflix's theatrical game, "Mudbound" is a powerful and absorbing film, one that does a splendid job of preserving its literary voice while painting a densely layered portrait of two families -- one white, one black -- in World War II-era Mississippi.

Director Dee Rees (sharing script credit with Virgil Williams) brings Hillary Jordan's book to life with an ease that often eludes such page-to-screen transfers. It's a movie where the narration shifts among characters, making the audience privy to inner thoughts they would otherwise be hard-pressed to articulate.
The result is a story filled with longing and pain, but which also finds unlikely bonds as it contemplates the grim racial history of the Jim Crow South and the war's aftermath.
"Mudbound" moves at a methodical pace -- basically approximating its rural, mid-20th century environs -- but with a constant sense of purpose, imbued with a strong sense of foreboding.
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    Harboring dreams of getting ahead, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) relocates his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and children from Memphis to Mississippi. The move, however, doesn't go as planned, bringing the struggling McAllans into close contact with the Jacksons, Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige), African-American sharecroppers whose sprawling brood survives by working the land.
    The Jacksons' eldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), and Henry's slightly ne'er-to-well brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), both head off to war. They return significantly altered by their experiences, and less mindful of the systemic racism intended to divide them.
    Jamie, for one, drowns his memories in booze, while the two forge a friendship that is both heartwarming and anxiety-inducing for the audience -- especially with Henry and Jamie's papa ("Breaking Bad's" Jonathan Banks) snarling racist epithets and determined to enforce rules like having blacks use separate store entrances and sit in the back of the bus.
    "Mudbound" bores in on various levels of division involving class and race, even as its characters wage what amounts to an ongoing battle against elements that give meaning to the title and drape this world in gray, muted tones. It's a stark consideration of the South's history, told in a way that ripples beyond its era.
    "Violence is part and parcel of country life," Mulligan's Laura muses. While she's referring to livestock, that also applies to the knife's edge upon which everyone is living.
    The ensemble cast is uniformly good -- Hedlund's emotionally wounded warrior, who finally finds something about which to care, deserves special mention -- in a movie so delicately woven as to unearth reservoirs of compassion for even less-sympathetic characters, exploring darkness without abandoning hope.
    For Rees, whose credits include the Emmy-winning HBO film "Bessie," "Mudbound" suggests there will be more award nights in her future. As for Netflix -- which has tilled the theatrical fields with mixed results -- the movie could harvest the kind of prestige and accolades that the streamer has clearly been seeking.
    "Mudbound" premieres Nov. 17 in selected cities and on Netflix. It's rated R.