Thursday, February 15, 2018

In the Mire of "Mudbound"

It's getting harder and harder to dismiss Netflix distributed films, as they keep acquiring or funding films that demand attention. Because of the deluge of end-of-the-year prestige films, I've decided not to write about Noah Baumbach's "The Meyerowitz Stories" or Angelina Jolie's "First They Killed My Father," though I liked both. There was one title, however, that I had to put down some thoughts on.

The Mississippi delta is the setting for an uneasy period piece about two families, one black and one white. The black Jackson family are tenant farmers, working the land in the hopes of one day buying land and escaping their extreme poverty. Hap (Rob Morgan) is married to Florence (Mary J. Blige), and their plans are complicated when Hap becomes injured and unable to work. The white McAllan family has fallen on hard times, and are inexperienced as new landowners. Henry (Jason Clarke) brings his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), their children, and his disagreeable father (Jonathan Banks) out to Mississippi, and they all have difficulty adjusting. Both families send a young man to WWII, the Jacksons' oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Henry's brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and their returns spark deepening tensions and dangerous resentments.

What immediately sets "Mudbound" apart from other films about the racial divide is its unusual intimacy. We learn about the inner lives of the six main characters through extensive voice over, each providing different perspectives on the situation, and humanizing each player. Laura is particularly interesting, a woman in a loveless marriage trapped in a place that she hates, but who unwittingly becomes part of the system of oppression that further harms Hap and Florence. She's very sympathetic, but also infuriating because she's so deeply ignorant about the consequences of her actions. The two characters who have the most perspective on the situation are Ronsel and Jamie, who have been overseas and recognize that the status quo in Mississippi is unjust. And the friendship that develops between them becomes a welcome respite from all the misery that the rest of the film portrays.

"Mudbound" is the third film from director Dee Rees, who doesn't shy away from showing us just how awful life was for everyone in this community. She and cinematographer Rachel Morrison present a flat, empty, bleak world that compounds the hostility and racism permeating everything. The visuals are dingy and brown, full of sweat and mud. The first half of "Mudbound" takes some effort to get through because it's fairly slow going and often uncomfortable to watch, as all the characters' are introduced and their lives converge in unhappy ways. However, once the film focuses more on Ronsel and Jamie, the two characters who seem to have real prospects for better things, it becomes more engrossing. And even though very ugly things happen, the film is ultimately far more hopeful and elevating than I expected.

The assembled cast is very strong, with Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige as the stand-outs. Blige is almost unrecognizable as Florence, who is at the bottom of the social order, but sharply perceptive and the backbone of her family. However, Ronsel has by far the strongest and most compelling narrative, wrestling with his loyalty to his family and his anger at the racist systems they suffer under. Mitchell is able to project a constant air of quiet strength and competence, which serves him in both his quieter bonding scenes with Hedlund, and the more explosive, violent confrontations at the film's climax. I also like Carey Mulligan and Garrett Hedlund, but next to the Jacksons, their material feels overly familiar and underdeveloped.

"Mudbound" is not entirely successful, but it gives a different voice and a different perspective on the black struggle through a fairly unique lens. It manages to combine WWII and post-Civil War stories, very personal portraits with broader epic visions, and glimpses of the depths of human depravity with the heights of spiritual triumph. So I'll happily overlook the obvious shortfalls in the budget, the unsatisfying or too-convenient fates of some of the characters, pacing troubles, and all the cultural baggage of trying to parse yet another uncomfortable piece of art about race in America. This is a difficult but worthwhile film, and one that I'm very glad that I was able to see.


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