I have only one criticism of Mudbound, Dee Rees’ sophomore feature adapting Hillary Jordan’s novel, so I’m gonna open with it and then be flatout done talking shit about Mudbound. Especially because it isn’t really an entirely fair criticism and it isn’t even close to justifying the amount of sleeping done on the film. But here I go anyway stating my obvious feeling about Mudbound: It is not as interesting looking a film as I’d like it to be. Much as I am happy to see Rachel Morrison’s name show up on the Oscar nominees for Best Cinematography (the very first woman to receive the honor), it is way too clean for the grubby tale of generational hardships in the South that Mudbound is, threatening to be the one element that gets in the way of allowing us to sink into the many points of view Mudbound provides because of how aesthetically picturesque the imagery is. It’s not as though Morrison doesn’t know how to settle the tone of the story, especially in the darker moments where she’s so mindful of shadows and rural color tones in a dusty olden manner, but it’s way too sharp in a modern way to not hold the viewer at a divide in the time setting.
But of course, “you’re too good at your job” is the best kind of criticism to have for some. And I like to think that my expectations were way too high on account of Dee Rees’ debut feature Pariah being handily one of the best-looking movies of the decade, possibly the century if I’m wildin’ a bit. And considering the quality of literally everything else in Mudbound, it’s still no excuse for the lack of marketing and campaigning on the part of Netflix, the lack of attention given to it by viewers, and the lack of love given it to it by an awards season that was DEFINITELY aware of its existence but still acted like better movies were around this year.
Yeah, I think at this point it should be obvious this is less a review than a rant, but I’ll try to reign it back after one more unqualified superlative: Mudbound is not only better than Pariah in otherwise every way, making the sort of evolutionary step in direction one dreams of out of the talented Rees, it’s also better than possibly all of Best Picture nominees this year*.
OK, wait one more superlative and this one I will be able to qualify: In spite of Bright and Mute‘s… *giggle* “world-building” and the production value of a Jolie film and all those super pigs, I handily believe Mudbound is the most ambitious film Netflix has released. Narrative and thematic ambition, mind you. There’s no super-pigs here. What Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams have managed to thread out of Jordan’s novel is a sprawling view of 1940s Mississippi and when I say sprawling, I mean sprawling. The screenplay casts its net wide on what it whats to observe about the state of existence in the years of and after World War II, what that means for a black woman to feel obligated out of survival to have to neglect her own children for the well-being of another, what that means for a black man to be in a position where he can build or earn his own property and yet the state of American society steels leaves him to be trampled underfoot, what it means to be a white woman resigned to domesticity too quickly to stifle her own romantic dreams and sinking into misery, what it means to be an entitled white man on the road to being the gargoyle of his monstrous father but desperate to establish a decent household in financially hard times.
The black woman is Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige), the black man is her husband Hap (Rob Morgan). The white woman is Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), the white man is her husband Henry (Jason Clarke), son of the odious racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks). In the middle of all of this is still the perspectives of Florence and Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), both of whom are drafted overseas to Europe in the thick of the war and discover a vastly more different environment than America – especially Ronsel, treated less objectionably for his skin color (this watering down of Europe’s own racism would possibly be more objectionable to me if it weren’t co-written by a black woman) – then return to the same old miserable South they came from.
It’s a film of many themes and many perspective (pretty much all the characters I named except Pappy have their points of view adopted by the movie): masculine camaraderie, surrounding violence, both sides of abandonment (as we later learn more about Ronsel’s life in Europe), the trauma of war, the resilience of enlightened youth versus the resignment of tired old. Race, gender, class. It’s all explored in this tapestry of the toughness of life and all the angles they have to come from: man or nature or cruelty or desperation. None of these elements are approached with less than the amount of intimacy that Rees afforded her lead character in Pariah. It’s the kind of storytelling that makes me think that Rees could make any movie in the world from this point on and do a decent job with it.
But as Ebert said, it’s not what you’re about, it’s how you’re about it. All the Great American Novel approaches in the world could not get me over the moon about this movie if it weren’t an incredible piece of craftsmanship, such as how Mako Kamitsuna deftly cuts into moments to give ownership of the moment to a particular character so we can understand their inner commentary, sometimes to more than one character at a time just by mere patience and condensing all of the things Mudbound wants to say into a powerful 2-hour package.
And there’s an even bigger gambit in between all of the sound design making us feel the infertile soil beneath the characters’ feet reflecting off of their inability to grow out of their situation with the decision to use multiple narrative voiceovers for our six characters, which is just an insanely bad idea most times. Mudbound is not one of those times, Rees and the soundtrack fully able to space out those voiceovers to work for interiority of character and them lift off of them for sweeping grandiosity, a providing of several pieces of a larger picture of a time and place that is far in the past without having the same sort of divide the cinematography gives us. This isn’t necessarily something that would be easy without the help of one of the year’s best ensembles, who prove to be just as adept at soulful recitations of thoughts as they are at weary postures showcasing how hard life has stepped on them** and their struggle to still retain humanity and dignity in all of that, but the fact that Rees could make such an outrageous move in only her second feature and pull it off without a false note ringing in any of the voiceover work should be enough of a indication of what a miracle Netflix’s most worthy Oscar contender yet has been.
*The only real nominee that gives it a run for its money rhymes with Thantom Phread.
**And mind you after everything the characters go through, the ending feels so emotionally right. I felt like crying.