It is quite impossible for Mudbound to be a mere 134 minutes long, and I'm not sure if it is the film's great strength that it manages to cram such an unrelenting quantity of stuff into that running time, or if perhaps there is some other world where it clocked in at three hours and is even better. Restrictions are, after all, always a good thing for filmmakers, and in this case, the restrictions placed on director Dee Rees, who co-adapted the script with Virgil Williams from a novel by Hillary Jordan, compelled her to transform this American epic about life during and after World War II in the unyielding dirt fields of Mississippi for a pair of families - one black, one white - into a movie that glides through time and character POVs with a harried abandon. It feels at times less like a story happening, more like an unstoppable plunge down a steep hill into the rocks at the bottom. I loved it a whole lot, and yet I am compelled to acknowledge that when Nick Davis (a person whose opinion on this kind of film I'd ordinarily treat as holy writ) says that the film's "lensing [and] acting can be thin, structure episodic", he tells no lies.

Still, how often do we get movies with this kind of broad novelistic scope that still feel so wholly committed to the power of the image? Not nearly often enough. And how often do we get movies that attempt to put over the entire history of race, class, and gender (in that order) in midcentury America on a budget of $10 million, every penny of which makes it to (Netflix-sized) screen? It's ridiculous, unsupportable ambition, and it's no less ridiculous because of the basic fact that Rees makes it all work.

A plot sketch would be unwieldy and impossible, but the situation is that the white McAllan family has just purchased a shitty little farm in Mississippi, near to where the black Jackson family works as tenant farmers on the land where Hap Jackson's (Rob Morgan, who, if I had to pick, I'd call the best member of a damned excellent ensemble cast) ancestors once toiled as slaves. The McAllans are already riven with more than enough tensions to fuel a whole movie: Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) married the charmless Henry (Jason Clarke) when she was a 31-year-old virgin, mostly to escape the life of a spinster, and has taken a real liking to his young brother, the insouciant and brooding Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). At the time the clan moves down to Mississippi from Tennessee, Henry has taken in his awful, awful father (Jonathan Banks), a screeching racist even by 1940s Mississippi standards, whom nobody seems to more than tolerate. The Jacksons, comparatively, haven't much drama in their lives, other than the sort that's apt to attain to any impoverished African-American family in a segregated Southern community: Hap and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) are scraping by without much to show for it, but it's only the arrival of their new white neighbors that throw their lives into crisis, when Henry peremptorily asks Florence to help with his sick kids, though "asks" implies a much more diplomatic conversation than the one that actually takes place.

Somewhere along the way, WWII storms into everyone's lives, and Jamie and the eldest Jackson son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) both end up in Europe, both dealing with the war in their different ways. Jamie comes home with what they weren't calling PTSD yet, while Ronsel, treated as a beloved people by the whites he helps liberate, is freshly outraged by the casual, cruel segregation back home. The two men fall in as friends, implicitly on the grounds that there's nobody else around who can understand their wartime experiences, and this ends up setting off a chain of events that lead to a lot of suffering for pretty much everybody.

There's so much going on here. It's at once colorblind in its assessment of poverty and sharply aware of the strict racial hierarchies that still persist even in the presence of that poverty; it's got a practically Renoir-ian understanding of how certain shared experience and frames of reference can demolish lines of traditional animus. It balances no fewer than six equally-weighted lead characters (and Pappy McAllan is only a half-step below the rest), and earnestly respects each of their POVs even when it directly contradicts the POV of somebody else.

Out of all the things there exists to be impressed by, I think that's the one that impresses me the most. The film relies extensively on voiceover narration to privilege individual characters at different moments, which would ordinarily bug me like none other, except in this case it seems like a necessary choice to ground a film that's quite busy and overstuffed as it is. The result is a film made up little intimate vignettes, every one given to a single one of those six leads, and it's wonderfully startling to realise how much our impression of events depend on which lead we're following. The moment that first knocked me out was when Laura appears in Florence's story; the white woman, who had been made so sympathetic and sensitive in her earlier scenes, dealing with a lout of a husband and a monster of a father-in-law (there's a primacy effect here: Laura is the first character whose voice we hear in the film), quite abruptly - but without any stress or emphasis - turns into a rather dim and unthinking jackass, blithely imposing her will on the older, poorer black woman who is keenly aware of the potential for things to go horribly wrong if she says no.

And that's basically how the movie goes: a kaleidoscope of shifting allegiances, with the film flashing through one perspective after another, as editor Mako Kamitsuna shifts crisply, elegantly between moods. It's exhausting, condensed enough that it never lets up (the film I kept mentally checking it against was the 1944 "life on the homefront" epic Since You Went Away, whose meandering bloat is all the bad things this headlong rush of humanity isn't), varied enough in the scenarios, emotions, and dramatic stakes it portrays that it never just settles for pulverising us into submission; it changes, constantly, so that the overwhelming force of it keeps refreshing itself. And any time it risks veering into soppy melodrama (which is not often, though the climax certainly feels overripe in ways that the film wasn't asking for), Tamar-Kali's droning, tuneless score - a score that I think works exceptionally well, so apologies to Tamar-Kali if "droning" and "tuneless" come off as mean - is there to ground it in a severe modernism, musically anticipating the culture shocks of the decades to come while the characters are all variously stalled out in the past.

If I were to say one thing truly negative about the film, it's that it's a bit flat-looking; Rees's previous feature, 2011's Pariah, is one of the most amazing visual achievements of any 2010s independent film. It's one thing for Mudbound to look less interesting than that, since frankly most movies do - Pariah was the one of the early triumphs of Bradford Young, obviously most movies won't be able to measure up - though the problem goes a little deeper than that. Mudbound is just so... digital. There's a shiny inauthenticity that tends to plague its weepily grand landscapes of the distressed South; it's a film that wears its color correction on its sleeves. For a film that's very much about the way that its characters inhabit the land, that's no little problem, although there are enough compensations in the editing, the sound, and the pace that Mudbound still works as cinema, strong visuals or not. And let's be clear that I'm nitpicking; for a $10 million dollar movie, this looks pretty swell.

Anyway, it's a heady piece of work, using literary techniques along with its stylistic techniques to paint an elaborate picture of a community poisoned by racism and other cruelties, struggling to work despite itself. There could be a tighter, more fleshed-out, more disciplined version of Mudbound, to be sure; but would that Mudbound have the dazzling vitality of this one? I think not, and that vitality is all-important.