Notes on ‘Mudbound’

mudbound

1. Mudbound was financed independently and premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was met with a very warm reception. There was a subsequent bidding war to buy the film’s release rights, with rumored offers by distributors A24 and Annapurna. Ultimately, the film was sold for Netflix for a reported 12.5 million (the movie’s reported budget was 10 million).

2. There’s a lot of criticism about the distribution methods of Netflix, which prefers to make their movies immediately accessible in its website rather than giving them a theatrical release first (which was Amazon does, for example). The defense is obviously that Netflix’s website can reach way more people than any theatrical release can, but there is something a little sad about the fact that so few people will get to experience Mudbound on the big screen considering how strongly the movie is linked to a legacy of Hollywood epics.

3. Mudbound follows the story of two families in 1940s Mississippi. The McAllan clan are the white land-owners. The Jacksons are a family of black share-tenants leasing and working a piece of the McAllan’s land. The film follows the families before, during, and after World War II -a period during which a member from each family goes off to fight in Europe.

4. This is an independent production with a limited budget (again, 10 million). Most of the action takes place in and around the small farmhouses of both families. However, director Dee Rees uses every penny available to her (and a series of ingenious cinematic techniques) to make the movie feel far grander and expansive than its budget would immediately allow. The result is a movie that is ambitious in a way we rarely see come out of Hollywood (or American cinema in general) anymore. It’s a literary epic in the legacy of Gone with the Wind, The Color Purple, or The English Patient. 

5. That’s what makes me think the experience of watching Mudbound on the big screen must be invaluable. It’s not often that we see movies that are interested in grand-scale storytelling (the only other exception is The Lost City of Zand what are the odds we got two movies of this kind in the same year?). The big screen seems like the natural habitat for a movie like Mudbound, which sets out to (and succeeds) paint a multi-layered portrait of the historical complexities of race relations in the United States of America.

6. Mudbound’s cinematography (by Rachel Morrison) is beautiful. Morrison managed to capture the unbelievable natural beauty of the American South while being completely honest about the earthly grossness of life on the farm. As the title would suggest, there is a lot of mud in Mudbound. But all of the humidity and dirty faces are balanced with breathtaking sunsets and beautiful profiles of people silhouetted by candle-light in the night. My only disappointment regarding the look of the movie is that the cinematography often looks very obviously digital, distancing the movie from the comparisons it wants to make to the film classics of the past.

7.  The movie’s ambitions are reflected in its structure. As I mentioned on Twitter, the “plot” of the movie doesn’t really kick in until the second half of the movie when the sons return home from the war. Rees devotes the first half to exploring the inner lives of each of the major characters. She goes off on tangents, and follows each of them for five to ten minutes before going on to the next. Learning about these people is fascinating in and on itself, but even if it weren’t it’s worth it for the way in which it pays off in the second half. By the time we get to the movie’s climax, we know so much about the characters and their perspective on each issue everything becomes much more intense.

8. One of the ways Rees manages to paint such a detailed portrait in the first half of the movie, is by using voice-over narration. Voice-over is regarded as a cheap narrative device because screenwriters usually use it a short-hand for crafting truly cinematic story-telling (“show don’t tell” is the mantra of good screenwriting). The voice-over in Mudbound, however, is an absolutely essential and effective tool. Each of the six major characters in the movie gets their own voice-over. By getting to be inside each of their heads, the movie creates a polyphony of complexity, giving backstory on each of them and how they relate to each other, and to the racist institution that is life in the South.

9. In an interview with Ashley Clark from Film Comment magazine, Rees says that one of the things she was interested in accomplishing with Mudbound was “to explore the currency of whiteness.” “They all have it, it’s just how they spend it” she says about the McAllans, the white family in the movie. And it’s true. The incessantly racist grandpa (Jonathan Banks) feeds on it, while his older son (Jason Clark), while not overtly racist, is content to benefit from the system. Even more telling is the position of younger son Jamie (Garret Hedlund) who suffers from PTSD and bonds with black veteran Ronsel, not realizing the danger that can come to Ronsel out of forging such a relationship.

10. The Netflix factor seems to have tempered the praise for the movie, but an aspect that has been widely celebrated is the strength of the movie’s cast. The cast has been awarded the “Best Ensemble” award from the Gotham Awards and the “Robert Altman” award from the Independent Spirit Awards. I wholeheartedly agree with these citations, since the movie derives so much power out of the constellation rather than one specific star. Jason Mitchell’s performance is particularly moving as Ronsel Jackson. Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan express enormous amounts of emotion wordlessly as Ronsel’s parents. Carey Mulligan paints a particularly nuanced portrayal of a woman trapped between privilege and misery. But the performances are even stronger in context with each other than on their own.

11. I saw Greta Gerwig’s delightful Lady Bird for a second time the night after I saw Mudbound, and I noticed how both movies manage to turn very specific stories and small budgets feel much bigger and expansive than they sound on paper. Gerwig does this by giving generous amounts of personality and life to her supporting characters, not unlike what Rees does with her voice-over. However, the epic scale of Mudbound also comes from the director’s use of ellipses. She jumps through time liberally, often changing points of view, in order to explore an important detail about these people’s lives. I’m particularly fond of a montage narrated by Mary J. Blige’s character, in which she details how death is always present in a farm, be it in the chicken that you must kill for dinner or the dead possum that rots under your house.

12. Mudbound is one of the best movies of the year. Movies that are both this ambitious and this successful are very hard to come by. It is available on Netflix, so you have no excuse. Go watch it now.

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