Mudbound had such a short, limited release in Scotland and England that I didn’t bother to publish a review judging it too late to be of any use, but then I noticed it had been nominated for Oscars. That usually means a film will get a rerelease, albeit probably as limited as before. It received Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Leading Actress nominations – quite an achievement for a low budget production. Professing shame, here’s what I wrote, a film worth catching if it arrives where you are.
Mudbound is a richly packed, close woven tapestry of the American south. I enjoyed every minute of it, and the visuals are quite stunning. This absorbing, occasionally unfocused but accomplished film is an eye opener for so many reasons, not the least of which is the explosion of talent on the screen. It is also a history lesson.
This is co-writer and director Dee Rees third feature. For the uninformed Rees is female and black. Her latest film gives the finger to the film school book of basic rules. I suspect the rule breaking it indulges in, plus a sprawling storyline, reasons for a limited release.
Film school tutors tell you to start modestly, a short film or two, and then graduate to an austere feature, a salon piece with few actors, until you’ve lots of experience under your belt and can command a studio commission. Mudbound is a wide screen epic at two-and-a-quarter hours long involving multiple characters.
Students are advised to avoid the prohibitive cost of period drama costumes and the special set builds and props. Mudbound spans multiple years and continents all set in the 1940s. Rees peppers her film with quiet voice-overs at every opportunity. Only top directors use voice-overs but keep that technique to a minimum, usually the start and end of the story. (Shape of Water used this top and tail technique.)
The film begins with the end of the story, Laura McAllan, (Carrie Mulligan) describing her life, loves, and experiences on the Mississippi farm with her husband Henry, (Jason Clarke). She takes her two daughters through a barren wasteland to the makeshift grave Henry and his brother Jamie, (Garrett Hedlund) dug for their father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks). “When I think of the farm I think of mud, I dreamed in brown”, she says,
The story of Mudbound is adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name, a socially conscious treatise, and again against convention the film correctly exploits Jordan’s poetic prose in lots of voice-overs – producers hate poetic dialogue – allowing multiple characters to let us see their world through their eyes.
After visiting the grave, we return to the beginning of this story, before the McAllans settled on the farm, to the days of the Jackson family eking out a living as cotton sharecroppers.
Patriarch Hap, (Rob Morgan) and matriarch Florence, (Mary J. Blige) send their oldest son Ronsel, (Jason Mitchell) off to fight Nazis, but with a great degree of reluctance and resentment. Rees suggests they have little allegiance to a country that hates black people and prefers them dead.
Overseas, out of the claustrophobic and limiting farm life he left behind, Ronsel matures in quick pace. He’s amused by women in Europe who “slap his ass” checking to see if he had a monkey’s tail. As a soldier he has a clandestine affair with a white German woman, a relationship that brings him peace of mind. He never betrays the experience back home until he befriends Jamie, also an emotionally wounded veteran of the war.
The friendship that blooms between Ronsel and Jamie – the main thrust of the story – is neither exaggerated, over-dramatised, nor saccharine sweetened. Both saw war at its worst, the severed flesh of dead comrades, the fear, the sacrifices, and they share a common humanity. Unfortunately, that perception does little to protect them from hard-core racists who confront their lives in Civvy Street.
What grabs your guts and raises your anger, however, is less the in-your-face racism as the non-intervention from the local liberal white folks who surround them.
The mud in the film’s title is everywhere. The poverty on the farm is stark, hard, and visceral. No matter what stations in life these characters hold they are people of the earth. That’s where they were born and that’s where they will be buried.
Skin colour doesn’t matter when you recognise your own kith and kin from the example of survival before you. Death stalks them most days. For the first time I can recall a Hollywood made movie doesn’t hit black skin with scorching spotlights. Nothing is bleached. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison, (Fruitvale Station, Dope, Black Panther) gives us the variations of tone the clarity of an oil painting.
Production detail is remarkable. You notice the smallest of detail, probably because the languid pace of the story allows you to listen and look simultaneously. Old wood, creaking floorboards, poverty items on kitchen table, ragged bed clothes, and paint peeling walls seduce the eye. The old paint we learn is lead paint. Rather like life’s disappointments and pain don’t pick at it, paint it over.
I have not read the novel – translated into 15 languages – but I’d hazard the opinion this adaptation is pretty close to the written word. And in that I’ve not seen a word of criticism from the book’s author, a rare thing in a trade where authors are used to the simplification of their work and consequently emitting howls of protest.
What of the director Dee Rees? As a child, Rees had a stutter. She tried writing as a teenager but worked for Proctor and Gamble for the pay, before getting her first small scale film off the ground. It was then Rees came out as gay, and turned some of her repressed experiences into her 2011 debut, Pariah, a film I have not seen. She wrote the script and felt obliged to direct it herself because the material was so personal.
By all accounts Mudbound was not an easy shoot: for 28 days cast and crew were eaten alive by mosquitoes and baked in the midsummer heat of plantation country in Louisiana, where they filmed.
She adds, “A big budget will buy you extras, it will maybe buy you a little more time, but it won’t buy you performances,” she says. “Performances don’t work then nothing else matters.” Well, the performances she got from her talented ensemble are all admirable. “Hey”” she shouts. “We had to create the mud and that was probably the most expensive part of the shoot,” laughs Rees. “The mud wasn’t free!”
So what happened to all those Oscar nominations?
Mudbound didn’t get a single one. (Nor did Spielberg’s The Post.) It was snubbed. Could the fact it is a Netflix production have had anything to do with the Academy’s omission? Mudbound could have made history: cinematographer Rachel Morrison the first female nominee in that category; Mary J. Blige for best original song and supporting actress in the same year. Best adaptation would have made Dee Rees the first African-American woman to win in that category.
Who carries most shame now, the Academy for ignoring the film, or me for initially doing the same thing?
- Star Rating: Four
- Cast: Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell
- Director: Dee Rees
- Writer: Virgil Williams, Dee Rees from the novel by Hillary Jordan
- Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison
- Composer: Tamar-Kali
- Rating: 15
- Duration: 2 hours 17 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?