Posted under: Reviews
With Awards Season upon us as the year comes to a close, with studios all frantically trying to get their heavy-hitters out to qualify, Netflix have recently released their own horse into the race: Mudbound. Here's my review.
Coming from a background mostly in TV, directing the odd episode and TV movie here and there, you'd be forgiven for thinking that director Dee Rees has come from a career moving from one Oscar-calibre film to the next. If that certainly wasn't what she had been doing before, you can almost bet it's what her future entails - should she pursue it - because Mudbound is an extraordinary cinematic epic about family, friendship, love, racial segregation, the PTSD of war, as well as just an impressive character study - for 6 separate characters - and a great story that makes her case as a visceral storyteller and filmmaker. Rees has created something that is ambitious and giant, a film that plays out as an unwavering cinematic epic and feels like any of the best films you've seen on the big-screen this year; she matches the heights of Steve McQueen, Ava DuVernay, and Quentin Tarantino in her political, social imprint here about prejudice and segregation with a film that is so terrifyingly timely and more relevant than ever right now - and that's not a good sign.
The film takes place in rural Mississippi, in 1940, and follows two families (one black – the Jacksons – and the other, white – the McAllans) that deal with the various conflicts the time presented them. Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), have given up a life of luxury and moved to a small farm, with their two daughters and Henry’s father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks). Tending to this farm are the Jacksons, Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige) who have five kids and dream of saving up enough money to move away. Their oldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), has gone off to fight in the war in Europe, as a tank commander; Henry’s little brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), is also away for the same purpose – but battling in the sky, rather than on-land. Mudbound boasts an impressive cast, blending these narrative voices throughout the film together to tell its story. And everyone gives such astounding work here; the performances are commanding and natural, each in their own way. They all deliver so much emotion and depth with such raw conviction, leaving little unsaid, but all whilst not having to necessarily say too much either. Words are used sparingly, but effectively.
The film passes its narrative torch from one character to the next, emblematic of a film devoid of any one protagonist to latch on to. Similarly, there’s no single stand out performer. Mulligan and Blige are getting deserved contention but, the truth of the matter is, everyone gives a career-best performance here; anyone could get contention for their work because the performances are just that magnetic across the board. The writing is so riveting too, the film does a brilliant job at exploring the social hierarchy of the 40s and it’s utterly compelling watching the interactions between these characters – Hap and Henry’s meeting is heart-breaking, as the latter doesn’t so much ask for Hap’s helps as he does demand it. But the understanding is mutual, both families know their place. The screenplay examines this superbly, in a way that is often deeply poignant yet real. It’s when Ronsel and Henry come back from war, in the middle act, that the story takes a shaking; their unlikely friendship – as the pair bond over their war experiences, both lonely men changed by its conflicts - is the catalyst of the film and is the strongest aspect of the film. The dynamic is a refreshing one in this unsavoury world, sobering and quietly emotional as the pair find solitude and comfort in each other. The characterisation is some of the best I’ve seen in a film this year; the writing is sharp and sublime, and crafts every character with such pertinence and detail. The history of these people can be felt, we can feel the palpable weight of their lives and everything they’ve been through; they reflect a time when the world was in turmoil, yet, these themes and character interactions feel all too similar to today’s world – a sign that perhaps we haven’t left those dark days in the past, like we might have thought we did.
Visually, Mudbound is gorgeous. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison has created a film that is arresting; it captures the beauty of rural life and, yes, mud whilst still showing just how vast and barren it really is. The use of colours and the polished grading of it makes for an aesthetic that is slick, and gorgeous and epic – there’s lots of grand, sweeping shots that really make this film look so huge. It will make you upset you won’t get to witness such a gorgeous, grand spectacle on the biggest screen possible and, instead, on a smaller device because it’s Netflix. Nonetheless, Mudbound is an excellent examination of character and racial segregation; the film is long and it can drag from time to time, but the screenplay is so sharp and riveting, every conversation so engaging, that it makes for a film that is so fascinating to watch. Mudbound is a giant, and Dee Rees has proven herself as one too – a filmmaker that knows how to tell a story. Her direction is masterful; the orchestration of character and tensions, the result of such engrossing dialogue, is visceral. This is a film that blends all the right ingredients; it displays a plethora of astounding work in all departments and makes for a stirring watch that is, undoubtedly, one of the best films of the year. Netflix’s horse in the Oscars race will be hard to keep up with.
About the Author
Founder of Oasis Awais, and avid lover of life, Awais Irfan's love of writing and film is unequivocal. Ever since he was a little kid, he has loved the cinematic experience; so much so, he is studying Film Production in Glasgow and hopes to be the next "big thing" in directing.