VOD Review: Mudbound.
Netflix‘s Oscar nominated offering explores race, poverty and guilt in Mississippi after the end of World War 2.
Mudbound is a somber and tragic story about two families, one white and one black, trying to make a living off of the land in rural Mississippi. Equal parts John Steinbeck and Zora Neale Hurston, it is a racially charged tale that explores the internalized suffering of each of the characters, whether it is caused by thwarted ambition, prejudice, sexism, or the anguish caused by survivor’s guilt as broken men return to their homes from the war. While Mudbound ably handles the bigger issues, it is elevated by its ability to create intense and unsettling intimacy between the audience and the characters.
The Jackson family are poor tenant farmers who dream of owning their own land. Despite their family having worked the same acres for generations as slaves, family Patriarch Hap Jackson is determined to buy his own farm and be free of the white landholders who work him ragged. He is thwarted when the McAllan family move from the city to take possession of the farmland the Jackson’s tenant.
Henry McAllan grew up on a farm and watched his father fail at the endeavor. He takes his young wife and family away from the security of their educated city life and bullishly determines to succeed where his father failed. Things are complicated by the return of Hap’s son Ronsel and Henry’s brother Jamie, both of whom served with distinction in the war but have both been profoundly changed by their experiences.
The social and racial issues that swirl around our characters are deftly handled. If this was simply a story about prejudice and bigotry in the deep south circa 1950, Mudbound would be a decent but not remarkable entry into that genre. For better or worse, we’ve had many movies delve into that topic and produce spectacular films – Mississippi Burning and In the Heat of the Night spring to mind readily. Mudbound’s strength is using our distanced familiarity with the subject to create a context that deepens the emotional connection to the characters. It also serves as a wake up call.
The threat of racial violence permeates the drama but rarely erupts into the familiar images of hanging bodies and burning crosses. It’s an implied threat that constrains everyone’s actions. It is also a taken fact that informs everyone’s worldview. Director Dee Rees contrasts this world of simmering anger, hatred and violence with the noble rhetoric of the second world war. This greatest generation who destroyed Hitler, smashed facism, and liberated Europe blithely returns home to well-worn paths of racism, sexism, and class-ism. Mudbound is daring us to actually look at this “great” time in America that some people long to return to.
Under the Skin.
Everything in Mudbound is marshaled together to put us into the lives and minds of our characters. The camera follows our characters in long tracking shots from just behind them. There are many long close-ups of our characters, often like the camera is perched on their shoulders. From the beginning we get internal monologues from each character, narrating their thoughts and feelings in the moment. At first I disliked the monologues – the old adage about showing instead of telling jumped into my thoughts. As the plot progresses, it becomes a key tool for gaining insight into so many people who cannot speak their mind because of their culture.
Strength of Character.
Mudbound is filled with complex characters full of internal struggles. The cast gives strong performances. Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan give restrained but emotionally riveting turns as Florence and Hap Jackson. Garrett Hedlund is engaging as Jamie McAllan, though I found him to be channeling Val Kilmer’s Doc Holiday a bit too much (though I thought the same of his performance in Pan…maybe he just sounds that way!) Even Jason Clarke, who I generally don’t enjoy, is solid, playing into his strengths as the sullen and domineering Henry.
I felt especially drawn in by Carrie Mulligan as Henry’s wife, who struggles with social customs for women that are strangling her dreams, and Jason Mitchell as Ronsel Jackson, a young man who tasted equality as he fought in Europe and now returns to drudgery and subservience. Jason Mitchell was one of the best parts of Straight Outta Compton as Eazy-E, and he’s phenomenal here. Their stories are the heart of the piece, showing how the culture of the time maimed and silenced so many voices.
As a film, Mudbound has a few notable flaws. The opening arc is drawn out, relying heavily on the monologues to introduce all of the players. Since much of the backstory is told in narration, I didn’t need quite so much time setting up the McAllans, who only become interesting in light of how they handle their new environment.
My other major gripe was with how dark the film was. Much of the movie takes place in almost pitch black scenes, obscuring much of the action. I never felt that the utter darkness was used to much thematic gain, and certainly not as effectively as the play of light and dark was in Rob Reiner’s LBJ.
Mudbound is a film that was much more understated than I expected, given the themes and events that take place. It takes the time and effort to really immerse you into the life and times of the characters. It can be slow at first, but it quickly builds to a crescendo that seems shockingly abrupt but almost inevitable. With the strong performances and director Dee Ree’s attention to character and detail, it resembles a classic work of American literature to a degree that I rarely see in films. No wonder the novel it is based upon has been so critically lauded. If the Academy is smart, they’ll follow suit.