With Mudbound, African-American director Dee Rees announces herself as a filmmaker to reckon with, says Dan Slevin.
Dee Rees’ Mudbound premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in January, picking up critical acclaim and significant interest from prestige independent distributors like A24 (Moonlight and Room) and Annapurna (Zero Dark Thirty and American Hustle). If one of those deals had been made, you can bet that Mudbound would have made it into this year’s International Film Festival prior to a lucrative award season in cinemas.
But that wasn’t to be the case. The deep pockets of Netflix won the auction which means (as is so often the case now) no theatrical release in territories like New Zealand. Instead we get it the same day as the rest of the world via their streaming service. Swings and roundabouts. We don’t get to see Mudbound on the big screen – which would be spectacular – but we do actually get to see it.
Based on a 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, Rees’ film remains novelistic. Each of the main characters takes a turn at narration and all of them get a decent inner life and plenty for a strong cast to get their teeth into.
Set in rural Mississippi during World War II, it’s the story of two families – one white and one black – struggling to eke a living out of an unforgiving landscape. The white McAllan family (Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan and bigoted father Jonathan Banks) have the benefit of privilege but are hamstrung by ignorance and naiveté. The Jacksons (Rob Morgan and, in a breakout performance, R&B star Mary J. Blige) are working the land that their ancestors worked as slaves but are proud to be tenants rather than sharecroppers, even though they remain dirt poor.
Both families are trapped by history and, for long sections of the first half, it’s easy to feel that the film has more to say about class than race but that gets corrected soon enough.
When war is declared, Henry McAllan’s happy-go-lucky brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) enlists and flies bomber missions for the Air Force. The oldest Jackson child, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) becomes a tank commander in an all-black regiment spearheading the push into Germany. It’s their return – traumatised and determined to find something better than the lives of their families – that spurs the final act, the bigoted community pushing back so forcefully against the young war heroes that it will take your breath away.
Rees’ version of the story provides a more hopeful coda than Jordan’s book but it is a sensible adjustment as, emotionally flogged as I was, it could have made the ending of the film unbearable.
Anchored by stronger performances from the black characters (I warrant that it’s possible I was more taken by them because they are less familiar performers), an unwavering directorial point of view, superb photography (reminiscent of Terence Malick) by Rachel Morrison and editing by Mako Kamitsuma, I would call Mudbound one of the best films of the year if I hadn’t missed so many others.
My only qualm is the insensitive nature of Netflix itself. On opening weekend, Mudbound wasn’t being promoted the way that Stranger Things 2 is for example and the Netflix habit of minimising credits after 10 seconds so they can promote something else to you left me howling tearful obscenities at the screen as the beautiful, hopeful, ending was interrupted by a promo for something called The Punisher. This is worse than cinemas putting the house lights up too soon and is a crime against art.
This is a part of an ongoing attempt to watch #52filmsbywomen in 2017. Mudbound is on Netflix now (and in some cinemas in the US in order to become eligible for the Academy Awards. It’s that good). #52filmsbywomen is a project encouraging film lovers to seek out and enjoy films made by women.