"I dreamed in brown," Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) muses in voiceover as Mudbound begins, and you have to believe her. Dee Rees' gorgeous film opens with the sound of thundering rain and footsteps in muck. Set on a cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s, it offers a full sensory experience, capturing not just the sounds and sights but the smells and tastes of country life. Adapted from the 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound is a true ensemble piece; the film explores race and class in the South through the story of two fated families, the white McAllans and their black sharecropper tenants the Jacksons, narrated by several divergent characters. The trouble begins when the Jacksons' oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) comes home from World War II, where he was a tank commander, and befriends Henry's dashing younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), a fighter pilot also just back from the front. Ronsel can no longer abide the oppression of life in the Deep South -- the constant exploitation of his family's labor, both physical and emotional. Ronsel and Jamie's friendship invites trouble, and they know it. It all builds, inevitably and yet subtly, toward tragedy.
The movie turns on a series of revelations about its characters, whose hushed, intimate narration reveals rich inner lives. Voiceovers build on top of voiceovers, and we feel as if we're simply getting to know these people a little better, even while Rees is gesturing toward things to come. The result is a deeply engrossing film -- its two-plus hours whiz by -- about stumbling one step forward and two steps back toward a more enlightened existence.