While it’s plain to see that Netflix has recently been stepping their game up with their original series and movies, none of their original works have reached the point of true Oscar buzz. That might now have changed with Mudbound. The film was directed by Dee Rees, previously known for her 2011 indie darling Pariah. Mudbound is her newest film and was picked up by Netflix for 12.5 million dollars at the Sundance Film Festival. It will be airing on Netflix as well as in theaters on November 17th, and it is a must watch, as it is a fascinating meditation on racial tension in America at the end of World War II.
The plot follows the tense relationship between the families, the white McAllan family and the black Jackson family. Both live on the same land after the McAllans move in to take ownership of the farm, forcing the Jacksons into sharecropping. The two families become more entwined after two young men (Jamie and Ronsel) from each of their respective families return home and begin to form a close and supportive friendship. While this is the main focus of the film, the film’s pace is very meandering, preferring to portray a series of telling vignettes rather than a strong through line to make its point. There are many other plot threads in the movie that stitch these two families together and flesh out intrafamilial relationships in intriguing ways, many of which converge in a devastating and deeply cathartic ending.
The acting that bring these stories to life is the primary reason the film succeeds. Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell, who play Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson, respectively, skillfully portray a gauntlet of emotions involving their friendship, ranging from fear, grief, haunting, love, and longing. Carey Mulligan plays the wife of Jamie’s brother, and she too develops a complex character, portraying a woman with a compassionate heart encaged in a deeply controlling marriage and lifestyle. Her husband (Jason Clarke) is also realistically portrayed. The audience doesn’t hate him as much as it normally would, but rather understands through Clarke’s performance that his character is a product of his time and upbringing. Nowhere is this made more clear than in Jonathan Banks’s memorable performance as a reprehensible old man living with the McAllan family. Rob Morgan and and Mary J. Blige, who play Ronsel’s loving parents, also give excellent performances as good people forced to live a difficult and humiliating lifestyle in an unjust system. Every cast member came to work on this film.
In these stories the film explores its themes effectively. Ronsel’s journey is particularly captivating. We are introduced to him as he is leaving his family for deployment in World War II. We feel his nerves through an internal narration. Once deployed, we see him fighting in Europe, expanding his world from a single Mississippi sharecropping town to a whole new world of possibility. Overseas white people treat him and his friends as heroes. There he falls in love and develops a romantic relationship with a white German woman. When he returns home, while it is clear that he is happy to be reunited with his family, it is clear that he no longer belongs in that world anymore. As he is told by his racist neighbours after attempting to walk out a front door, “you’re in Mississippi now.” Where this journey leads and ultimately ends is best left for the viewer to discover.
The film is not flawless, however. While many plot threads do contribute in a meaningful way, others feel like fat that needs to be trimmed off. These stories don’t go through an arc or reach any conclusion, but rather start happening and then stop happening. A plot line involving two young white sisters who are hired by the McAllans feels particularly unnecessary. What’s worse, it culminates with extreme abruptness and is confusing. It does not in any way stick the emotional landing it hopes to deliver on.
Regardless, this is still a great film that deserves to be seen. This is a time period and setting to explore ripe for exploration, and Dee Rees manages to do it in a way that feels naturalistic and very human. The film’s climactic culmination, which is alluded to in the film’s in medias res opening, makes the leisurely pace of the rest of the runtime worth it.
Featured Image by Netflix