This awards season, everyone should be talking about Mudbound. An American masterpiece from filmmaker Dee Rees, the Netflix film is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, has an evocative score from Tamar-Kali Brown, and boasts a fantastic ensemble with Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan, Jonathan Banks, and Carey Mulligan.
It is a reminder of the brutality of American history, of the weight of generations of institutionalized bondage and familial racism, and of the possibility of love as survival. It is worthy of being discussed alongside The Grapes of Wrath and Giant and The Deer Hunter and Days of Heaven and other classics that analyze our relationship with the land and the promise of the American dream.
And it is also the indicator of a trend: That Carey Mulligan has cornered a very particular kind of role so far in her career, and that is the one of “unhappy wife longing for a different life and in love with another man.” It’s a super-specific thing, and Mulligan is great at it!
Since 2009’s quietly heartbreaking An Education, Mulligan has been cultivating a certain air of graceful melancholy, often portraying characters pushing forward through conditions profoundly unfair but fundamentally unchangeable. As a clone tasked with taking care of the friend she’s loved since childhood as he dies from organ harvesting, she is the steadying center of the film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. In Shame, the movie that made Michael Fassbender’s junk famous, her rendition of “New York, New York” as lounge singer Sissy hinted at the trauma and damage sustained by herself and her brother in their childhood.
And in 2011’s Drive, 2013’s The Great Gatsby, and the most recent Mudbound (note that there will be some SPOILERS for Mudbound below), Mulligan perfects her “sad wife” mode, capturing the yearning and unfulfillment of a woman taken for granted by her husband and turning to another man for attention and longing. As Irene in Drive, Daisy Buchanan in Gatsby, and Laura in Mudbound, Mulligan conveys someone pounded down by ignorance and mendacity (whether struggling to survive death threats in Drive or poverty in Mudbound, or being constantly cheated on in Gatsby) who desires to be fully seen. It is the gaze of Ryan Gosling’s Driver, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby, and Garrett Hedlund’s Jamie that finally enlivens her, setting off a series of events that ends in tragedy every time.
Mulligan puts her first spin on this trope in Drive, in which her young mother character Irene crosses paths with her neighbor, who befriends her young son, Benicio. Neither Irene nor the Driver talks much, but in the glow of the California sun, driving around Los Angeles’s Silver Lake Reservoir in his car, the glances he sneaks at her are implied to be more attention than she’s received in a while. “Do you wanna see something?” Driver asks her, but while Irene and her son are watching the Reservoir, he’s watching her. The vibe that developed between them during that hazy afternoon is quickly noticed by her husband, Oscar Isaac’s Standard, when he’s released from prison some time later. But by then, Irene’s patience and affection for Standard has already begun to fray (evidenced by her “I wish you would” when Driver jokes about calling the cops during Standard’s welcome home party), and when the Driver kisses her in their apartment building’s elevator before beating to death the man sent to kill her, it’s the culmination of tension that had long simmered between them.
Mulligan stayed in the same mode for her turn as the much-maligned Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s lush adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby. Draped in silks, chiffons, feathers, and jewels, her presentation is certainly more posh than Irene’s worn-down waitress in Drive, and Mulligan changes up her voice, too, adapting a lilting quality to it that brings to mind Gatsby’s description of it as “full of money” and narrator Nick Carraway’s observation of a woman “high in a white palace, the king’s daughter, the golden girl.” But still, putting aside Daisy’s egregious wealth and fundamental selfishness, the core of her character—a woman once admired by her husband who has since been shoved aside, and whose craving for acknowledgment leads her to another man—overlaps with Irene’s, and Mulligan’s performance is similar, too. She’s guarded at first, unsure of what to make of Gatsby’s return or the clandestine meeting he arranged through Nick. But as their rekindled affair grows more intense, Daisy seems to open up: her face becomes more expressive, her eyes are brighter, and the quiet wonder of how she says to Gatsby that he’s “always looked so cool” is more honest than anything she says before and after, much like Irene’s “I wish you would.” Of course, Daisy’s final actions make her far less sympathetic than Irene (and perhaps even completely irredeemable), but her situation—one of profound loneliness, and an attempt to refine her own identity by severing her relationship with her husband in favor of a man who knows her in a different, more “true” way—is right in Mulligan’s wheelhouse.
All of which leads us to Mudbound, one of this year’s best films and one of Mulligan’s most nuanced performances in this mold. In her adaptation of the novel by Hillary Jordan, Rees switches character perspectives throughout the film, allowing Mulligan’s Laura to introduce herself: A 31-year-old virgin, talented singer and piano player, and college graduate with a degree in education who is living with her parents, fearful of being an old maid, and who describes not a feeling of love toward eventual husband Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) but a sense of being “grateful.” She is feisty enough to argue with her mother at the dinner table while Henry is courting her but, once married, ultimately powerless, forced to follow Henry when he unexpectedly sells their home and moves their family to 200 acres of muddy farmland in Mississippi. In her narration, she mentions Henry’s proposal not as a question, but a statement, and not something romantic, but practical. Every element of this is spoken with a sort of unshakeable resignation—which is in direct contrast to how Laura acts around and interacts with Henry’s younger brother, Jamie.
When Laura and Jamie first meet, he immediately charms her with Shakespeare references that Henry doesn’t get; when she zings back by comparing him with Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jamie describes the character as a “hobgoblin” to his older brother, putting a self-deprecating spin on his shared interest with his sister-in-law. But it’s clear to Henry at least that there’s a connection between Laura and Jamie that he can’t touch, which is why he immediately discredits it, telling Laura after she shares a dance with his brother that he’s a womanizer and that he’s used to seeing women “sparkle” for Jamie.
Still, Laura’s increasing resentment toward Henry after they settle on the farm and her hatred of her racist father-in-law is tied hand in hand with not only a suggestion of her own lost potential (she’s passionate about her piano and her collection of novels in a way that she’s isn’t about her husband) but also with her own affection for Jamie. When he returns from World War II, traumatized by the friends he saw die and slipping into alcoholism, she’s the one who tries to calm him during his night terrors, and he’s the one who finally understands her need for privacy in this dirty, despondent place by building her a shower so she doesn’t have to bathe in a bathtub in the field, her body bared to anyone who happens to walk by. Mulligan’s face in each of these scenes is an exercise in pained compassion and unexpected joy, respectively—the most emotion shown since Henry carried her through the door of their first home—and it makes perfect sense that Laura is the one to kiss Jamie first. Henry may have been belittling her, but she does “sparkle” for her brother-in-law once he demonstrates a care for and interest in her that her own husband won’t.
The bond between Laura and Jamie is accepted by the pair with an act of desperate lovemaking and preserved with another shared secret, and their deceit depends on Laura reverting to her performance of being a dutiful, demure wife to Henry. It’s the same deterioration Mulligan has to portray for Daisy, too, as she returns to Tom Buchanan and their cocoon of self-absorption and privilege, and for Irene, who must continue caring alone for her son Benicio after her husband is murdered and her guardian neighbor disappears. The “sad wife” niche Mulligan has carved out for herself is a key component of these tragedies, and an opportunity for the actress to operate within and against the clichés of that character—and with Mudbound, another perfect element of a perfect film.