The muddy landscapes of a Mississippi farm divide two racially diverse families, in the Netflix Oscar contender ‘Mudbound’. Set in the rural American South during World War II, Dee Rees’ written and directed Mudbound is an epic story of two families pitted against one another by a ruthless social hierarchy, yet bound together by the shared farmland of the Mississippi Delta. Mudbound follows the McAllan family, newly transplanted from the quiet civility of Memphis and unprepared for the harsh demands of farming. Despite the grandiose dreams of Henry (Jason Clarke), his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) struggles to keep the faith in her husband’s losing venture. Meanwhile, Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence Jackson (Mary J Blige), sharecroppers who have worked the land for generations struggle bravely to build a small dream of their own despite the rigidly enforced social barriers they face. The war upends both families’ plans as their returning loved ones, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), forge a fast but uneasy friendship that challenges the brutal realities of the Jim Crow South in which they live. ‘Mudbound’ is rated R for disturbing violence, adult language, and nudity.
With a film like ‘Mudbound’, the Oscar statue finally feels within the firm grasp of Netflix capabilities, especially considering how close they have now bridged the gap with reputable production qualities that rival the big screen experience. Not only is Rees adaptation a worthy suitor for the literary counterpart that has since been handed down as a tale of racial inequality for generations, but also one astonishes on nearly every front to being a credible nominee during a year of films that feels completely wide open. I was floored by this film, not because of anything surprising in the material that offers a disturbing view of what has transpired across history, but rather the equality in responsibility that the script takes in presenting a rare side to both angles of the story; black and white. The film is a shining example of two diverse families forced to live in such close proximity of one another, and what that miniscule distance means in the bigger picture for a world that was slowly coming together for the ideals of one complete race; humans.
Rachel Morris’s outstanding visual presence has always made atmospheric advances in setting the stage properly with films like ‘Dope’, ‘Cake’, and my personal favorite ‘Fruitvale Station’, but her work in ‘Mudbound’ far succeeds those prior movies in breaking the fourth wall for the audience to soak in. The cinematography here is what I describe as being “beautifully sooty”, maximizing the appeal of a muddy surrounded territory that reflects on the camera’s overall shading and color palate. There’s a real sense of grime in the air of this picture that can portray dirt for the kind of artistry that can be presented in something so pale and lifeless. This reflects accurately the kind of muddying in the air by these two sides that have been at war for ages, and really feeds into preserving a kind of toxic environment that our characters young and old are breathing in with each passing day that the camera well preserves in its visual compass. There’s beauty in decay, and Morris’s accommodating touch physically immerses us in this fledging mud-bowl that solidifies the murky relationship between our two family protagonists.
The script for this film runs into a few problems that sometimes hinders progress, but for over two consistent hours of constantly raising the stakes of suspense for their on-going working relationship, Rees comes out nearly unscathed in the grander picture. I mentioned earlier how responsible this film is at depicting both sides fruitfully in the epic running time of 128 minutes for the film, but what’s even more enlightening is just how much tender care and ears that Rees lends herself for every angle of the spectrum. No fewer than eight of the central characters narrate us through the entirety of the film, feeding into the kind of mental exposition necessarily needed to define these nearly barbaric movements of communication. This gives the film a novel-like approach to its sequencing that feels so close to the infernal fire that it could easily burn us. In addition to this, I loved the comparison between the two families scene-to-scene that nearly echoed one another to showcase that no matter how different they may feel in living scenarios, they are one in the same on the beating heart scale that lives and dies through the same surprises of life. Beyond this, the film has an intricate way of getting the most out of its wartime subplot by comparing and contrasting the similarities to war overseas as compared to the war that is transpiring on our own soil. To that degree, America’s war feels much more urgent, especially in this movie, mainly because of how culturally behind we are compared to the rest of the world that doesn’t see the same hinders of color that handicap our progression. This is perhaps the most startling revelation behind Rees credible voice, and one that moved miles in terms of needing those differences elsewhere to highlight what is going on inside of this cancer.
There are two noticeable problems that can sometimes challenge the attention span of the audience in ways that could divide this experience. For me, it took three different sits to finish this film, not because of the disgusting treatment of minorities that transpires throughout, but rather the plodding exposition of the first act that doesn’t take off running with its feet in the air. It’s normal for set-up’s to feel lengthy because of the introductions to characters and scenarios, but so much of the first half hour of this film could easily be trimmed and combined together in keeping this film confidently under the two hour mark. Around the halfway point, the film’s dramatic pulse does beat a satisfying drum of intensity, but it’s such an investment to get to that point that could drop some moviegoers off along the way. The other problem deals with the predictability of this script that is easily mapped out from the initial engagements. Sadly, this film didn’t surprise me any in the least with its screenplay, and I wish so much of the exposition wasn’t so translucent so as not to see what will eventually come. Because of this, it was like playing the waiting game for this movie to catch up, treading through the muddy waters of progress to reach the emotionally engaging finish line of material that we patiently yearn for.
Every aspect of the cast hits their marks with precision, even including the ones who have never given me anything positive to say until now. Garrett Hedlund is great in this film, and his transformation between his pre-war swinging personality to his post-war traumatic troubles, outline a character who very much matures before our eyes and evolves into a positive male protagonist that this film so desperately needs. On the female side of the spectrum, Carey Mulligan and Mary J Blige could easily be their own competition towards an eventual Oscar nomination. Blige for me is the greater sell because her stripped down performance as Florence is the kind of inspiration for future female revolutions to stand up and prosper. She’s almost unrecognizable in this role, and I attribute that to the dedication that Blige has to letting this performance tell itself without needing the familiarity of a pop star’s presence at face value. Mulligan too continues to be one of the very best emotionally distraught actresses working today. That may sound like a negative, but a film as somber as this one requires that kind of emotional registry, and Carey is certainly up to the task, breathing in Laura as a woman who has been subjected to decisions being made for her for the entirety of her existence. While this may be a racial divide story first, it’s Laura’s subplot that provides us with hints of a woman’s revolution eventually taking place and providing many layers to the family household.
THE VERDICT – Considering this a stream-only release, there is absolutely no reason for you not to indulge in the muddy waters of ‘Mudbound’ that tread through the absorbing details of inequality that still reeling us to this very day. This is groundbreaking material for Netflix, a company which up until now has made some reputable documentaries but nothing in the motion picture presence that stood among Hollywood’s best. The performances are raw, and the visual likeness radiates a murky surrounding that treads softly on the surface before engulfing itself whole on what’s bubbling underneath.