Synopsis – Two men return home from World War II to work on a farm in rural Mississippi, where they struggle to deal with racism and adjusting to life after war.
My Take – As a subscriber and a huge fan of their original content, I do agree that Netflix hasn’t had the best track record when it comes to original feature films. Sure they do have films like Beasts of No Nation or Okja to back an argument about how the streaming service is slowing becoming a potential player in the film making business, but for some reason their onslaught of Adam Sandler films and weep inducing romantic dramas still continue to dominate their galleries. As a sign of change, the executives at Netflix have finally made the right call by picking up this Dee Rees directed film, which is by far their greatest feature film to date. Premiering in Film Festivals around the world, this film has been highly anticipated for film lovers and it does not disappoint. While films on racism, war, violence, female solidarity however relevant these subjects are, may seem to get rather exhausted on a cinematic level especially during the Awards season, this definite film about racial discrimination in the southern states of USA during the 20th century; a film so vary of every aspect and every human emotion that anyone inclined to draw quick and simple conclusions are brushed aside and urged by the filmmakers to think again. Sure, this film tackles many issues that have been explored throughout countless films in the past or even in recent memory, but when a film can captivate you with its characters and truly make you care when things begin to happen to them, then you’ve made a real gem of a film, and this film is no exception to that notion and here’s why I believe it deserves all the attention it’s getting. Yes, on the simple basis of its trailer, one would believe that this film is simply Netflix‘s way of capturing the success of films like Mississippi Burning or 12 Years a Slave, but there is something fresh and original in director Dee Rees‘ adaptation of Hillary Jordan‘s novel and it’s a considerable achievement that owes a lot to the writing, the directing and the unusual structure and patient pace of the film.
The story begins in 1939 Memphis, Tennessee and follows a white family and black family living on a farm on the Mississippi Delta preceding, during and immediately following World War II. Laura (Carey Mulligan) after being courted by her brother’s boss, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke), move to a farm in Mississippi along with their children, which Henry bought. Living on the farm as its workers are the Jackson family, led by Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), who immediately after their introduction begin working for the McAllan family. However, when Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and Hap’s eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), return home after the war, preexisting tensions between the families flare up, especially as the two young men become friends despite the racial animosity in the town, which are enhanced by Pappy McAllan (Jonathan Banks), a bigoted racist. With the specter of WWII threatening to take away eligible family members, the downwardly mobile McAllans and the upwardly mobile Jacksons, are put on a path towards conflict and mutual destruction. In an outline, the film sounds like it plays as a relatively straightforward drama. But, director Rees and co-screenwriter Virgil Williams use multiple narrators throughout allows us access to the perspectives of multiple characters. We get both black and white views on war and farming. Featuring an array of voice overs and inner voice monologues of both the white McAllan family, wannabe farmers who’ve in many ways gone into a venture that is beyond their capabilities and the black Jackson family, who are hardworking and knowledgeable farm hands determined to make the most of their lot in life, the film offers an insightful and emotionally resonate look at American culture of the time. The film does a lot of things right including casting, directing and book-to-film adaptation. But what it does best is instill in its audience a sense of perspective. Come to think of it, the events of the film only took place seventy short years ago give or take and while it’s a work of fiction, none of the elements of the story deviate from the cold, harsh truths of the time. Employing almost a director Terrence Malick like sensibility of visual palettes, voice-over and construction, director Ree‘s film is big in scheme and scope but is most importantly an intimate character exploration of both these human beings and a country that may have been at war overseas but was also at war within itself and this powerful expose is brought powerfully to life by the young filmmaker and her on-song cast. Yet, this is not an easy film to sit through, as the characters who portray the most ignorant among men, are very well played, especially by the venerable Jonathan Banks, who plays a man of such ignorance, it boggles the mind. He is the kind of father it is impossible to love. The merit of the film is to paint notable differences at first until you realize that the two families have a lot more in common. Here, director Rees less interested is shedding light on the very inflamed issue of racism, and rather most interested in the inherent goodness in people, illustrated through friendship and the bond between the two veterans of each family: Henry’s brother Jamie and Ronsel Jackson, two men who’ve seen hell in Europe, the things we expect and that are not overplayed, but they also lived the exhilaration of liberating countries and discovering a fraternity that transcends racial barriers. Everything about the film clicks when you see these two men, who are struggling to adapt to life back in America, bond over their traumatic experiences that their families and neighbors cannot understand.
Jamie’s time as a fighter pilot helped him to see past prejudice, and Ronsel’s time on the front lines and being seen as an equal in Europe made him less willing to put up with the same racist divides and provocations in the South. This film also breaks a taboo seldom explored by the films: the hypocritical treatment of Black soldiers. America takes pride for having liberated Europe but not to the point of questioning the internal prisons, and this is the concealed wound the film tries to heal. Ronsel is the most complex of all the characters because he embraced his country’s idealism and couldn’t believe he wouldn’t be rewarded for it. Director and co-writer Dee Rees not only uses her camera brilliantly to capture the human side of her characters, but she realizes that the only way to get to the bottom of the problem and understand all the mechanisms at play is to illuminate every aspect, right down to the fact that it takes generations to reverse a rotten attitude. Unfortunately, there really isn’t any hero here. Where you will crave justice for the mistreated black family (like in Django Unchained), you simply get a mildly satisfactory murder of the racist grandfather who was asking for it the whole time. I think this would have been a lot more satisfying had “pappy” been the only one to attack Ronsel and cut out his tongue, but alas it was a group of racist people in KKK outfits. So at the end are you happy that he died? Of course. However it feels hollow because they made it so blatantly obvious that there is so much more hatred out there and that their lives didn’t change at all. It also could have just as easily been an angry son murdering a horrible father. The rural setting of 1940s American society is also crisply captured by its aptly chosen locations & period-specific set pieces. Editing unfolds the narrative in a patient manner, giving each character their space to breathe but I do feel it could’ve still used a few trims. Running for about 134 minutes, could have easily been edited the extra time filled with pointless, overly long scenes that do nothing to move things along. Aside from the length, this film has a few other problems too. The over indulgence of the voice-over narration becomes a bit tiresome, even though the words have a poetic lilt to them. This approach provides multiple perspectives from all of the characters, but it hinders their development at times. One wishes those words would have become part of the dialog and provide its glorious cast with more dramatic acting opportunities. Also one thing which bothered me was the motivation of Henry McAllen to uproot his family from their comfy upper middle class life in Memphis to live in squalor on a failing farm in rural Mississippi, something which remains unexplained till the end. For a film like this to work, we need strong performances, and luckily the excellent cast is up to the task. Both Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell do a great job as they share a common connection through the war that is powerful enough to bring them together despite their racial differences. They both make their characters whole as they try to learn how to live a normal life back home after the war. Carey Mulligan as Laura brings an underlying sadness and strength to her part as the despairing wife. While Jason Clarke is alright, Jonathan Banks is frighteningly chilling as the bigoted father. While Rob Morgan brings a low key intensity to his character, R&B diva Mary J. Blige, the sole recipient of an Oscar nomination, is palpably nuanced, composedly resilient and utterly lifelike. On the whole, ‘Mudbound’ is an emotionally captivating character centric period drama that is both hard hitting & thought provoking.
Directed – Dee Rees
Rated – R
Run Time – 134 minutes