Boy, we’ve been on a Netflix streak haven’t we? Only this time we have what Netflix was hoping to attain the Beasts of No Nation effect of a film being so damn great that it would be a controversial figure during awards season. But Beasts was a truly spellbinding film that made many a Top 10 list, and Mudbound has only had whispers of attaining the same zeal. So let’s see if Netflix was able to get lightning to strike twice with their racially-charged film.
We find ourselves in 1940s Mississippi, as we focus on the lives of two families, the white McAllan’s and the black Jackson’s. The patriarch of the McAllan’s is Henry (Jason Clarke) who abruptly moves his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), and two kids from the city of Memphis to the Mississippi farmlands in order to satiate his long desire for a quiet farm life (that he never told his wife). The Jackson’s are lead by Hap (Rob Morgan, or Turk from the various Marvel Netflix shows) who also dreams of providing a better life for his wife, Florence (an unrecognizable Mary J. Blige), and end up renting farm land on Henry McAllan’s land while also dealing with Henry’s virulently racist father (Jonathan Banks). Both the McAllan’s and Jackson’s have family members that enlist in the U.S. army to fight in Europe during World War II, the suave Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and the ambitious Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell). While some members of each family enjoy bonding with each other, the patriarchs of each respective family distrust the other and the terrible presence of the KKK only exacerbates the tension coming between the two households.
Once again, we have yet another “slice of life” film, as we bounce back and forth between the perspectives of the Jackson’s and McAllan’s with little narrative drive propelling matters further. To be honest, the first hour and a half of this 2 hour and 15 minute flick (Netflix if you wanted to make a show out of this, just a damn show, don’t lock me in here with you for such a long ass time) felt like an eternity to me as the film switched narration by Laura, Florence, Hap, Ronsel and Jamie every five minutes. It gives the artificial measure of quicker pacing, even though barely anything of note is happening on screen. Part of the issue is that ensemble casts tend to stumble significantly when the movie tries to give all of them ample opportunity to develop and flesh out characterizations. But this works more in the television arena, which the director, Dee Rees, has ample experience working on Empire and When We Rise. But I find that she excels when she’s focused on a single character as she did with her last theatrical release, Pariah (which you should check it out if you never got the chance).
Unfortunately, with Mudbound, Rees tries to give the same level of character appreciation she gave her protagonist in Pariah to half the friggin’ cast. But even with a significantly longer run time than she’s operated under previously, she still doesn’t have enough time to give that meaningful characterization out of her casts as she wants. So you’re left with a ton of visual shorthand to see the struggle each character experiences as they all talk about what they’re experiencing as opposed to feeling what they’re experiencing. It’s a subtle difference, but it does affect my own connection with characters to keep me invested in the movie. At the very least, Ree is still a good director of actors and makes sure everybody gives it their all, even if the editor left much to be desired.
Of note is definitely the pair of Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund, who when they finally appear on screen together about an hour and twenty minutes into the movie, the film comes alive in providing concrete emotional stakes. The duo have great chemistry with each other as they each vent their characters’ frustrations with coming back to America after World War II, especially with feeling “trapped” with their respective families. On top of that, their relationship also drives major events in the final portion of the movie that was genuinely interesting and heartbreaking to watch, which made me resent the first hour of this movie all the more.
The relationship between these characters should have been the focus of the movie, rather than boring with us with Jason Clarke’s character trying (and failing) his hand at farming. It’d also be better than watching Carey Mulligan’s frustration as Clarke’s wife that really only manifests when they first move to Mississippi and is pretty much forgotten about thereafter. Or hell, maybe if the relationship between Clarke and Mulligan was believable at all (they really don’t have great chemistry), I’d give more of a damn when the film starts making love triangle noises in brief moments. Maybe the whole angle of Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige trying to raise a farm family in the Deep South could have been intriguing sight to see if it was fleshed out at all, but the film returning to the lives of the McAllan’s was just too damn distracting for the Jackson’s plight to have any real weight.
To me, Mudbound made for an incredibly frustrating experience. On one hand, production values are top notch (though I’m not really giving that a pass anymore) and the relationship between Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund’s character made for compelling viewing. But on the other hand, the pacing is all over the pace and the film takes way too damn long to get any sense of a narrative backbone or even a character dynamic that the audience can become invested in. And at the end of the day, it’s disappointingly unfocused for a filmmaker who made her debut in solid character studies of intriguing perspectives in the world.
For a Netflix night if you’re in the mood for a traditional drama, you will likely be fine with what you’ll get. But this film doesn’t even come close to any of my runners up for the Best of the Year. I’ll give this a high…