Mudbound (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Mudbound (2017)

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The McAllans and Jacksons, two families struggling with the land post-World War II, find their lives pulling tighter together with each setback.  The returning sons and brothers pull the bonds so close they threaten to snap with the looming threat of American violence.  Dee Rees directs Mudbound, with the screenplay written by Dee Rees and Virgil Williams, and stars Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige, and Rob Morgan.

Draw modern cultural and political parallels with Mudbound at your own peril.  I write this not at a warning but as a challenge.  Dee Rees melds dream and reality so effectively that I was forced to reconcile cinema's well of violence with its tepid capacity to influence grander change.  The two acts of violence that close Mudbound are loaded with radical implication for media representation of the suffering of black Americans and the gauntlet thrown at white Americans to do something about it.

The stage is set with eerie effectiveness when the McAllan family, Henry (Jason Clarke) and Laura (Carey Mulligan) crowd around a large radio to hear Franklin Delano Roosevelt's, "A date which will live in infamy" speech after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.  FDR's words boom in the enclosed space, with the family safe in a room that reflects FDR's impassioned plea for action right back at them.  Rees cuts to another family, the Jacksons, with Hap (Rob Morgan) staring at the smaller radio as the speech rings hollow in the empty air of the field Hap's working.  The hazy cocoon of the white McAllan family threatens to shatter while the black Jacksons need only look around at the dirt that this infamous day is just one of many in their struggle.

Frame for frame, Mudbound is arguably the most gorgeous film released in years.

The McAllans and Jacksons aren't on parallel paths, and Rees shows how their eventual intersection is shaped by their country's expectation of them.  Rees establishes an enticing audiovisual rhythm, freeing the narration from the different McAllans and the Jacksons from direct commentary on the onscreen action to philosophical musing.  That I never lost track of who was speaking is something of a miracle while Rees establishes firm visual guidelines on top of the audio.  Early scenes with Laura present a world viewed in hindsight with light chiaroscuro framing her perception in a darkened halo, and the grainy texture of Hap's introduction brings the dirt of the fields to tactile view.  There's little meaning in suffering, but this subtle difference in blending of dark and light for both families shows the McAllans are blessed to tell their story in a way the Jacksons are routinely denied.

Rachel Morrison is the key artist to Mudbound's power.  She's often made the "highest" and "lowest" art, from Creed to Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, look like a direct window into the mind of their respective directors.  Morrison's earthy approach to Mudbound highlights the differing textures of Jackson family's skin, blissfully allowing Hap and his wife Florence (Mary J.  Blige) a post-coital opportunity to disappear into their black dreams while still visible as part of the darkened bedroom.  It's her nuanced lighting that highlight Blige's brilliantly low-key performance as the tiniest movements from Blige are not lost in the wood grain or dirt surrounding her.

Morrison also wields this light as a weapon, redirecting longstanding criticisms against cinematographers who refuse to learn how to light black skin.  Younger McAllan brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) has a "come to Jesus" moment in the cockpit of his bomber that he tells Hap and Florence's son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell).  White Americans, particularly of the liberal stripe, have a habit of building their revelations up as a grand moment when basic empathy should apply.  Morrison responds to this paternalistic outreach by intensifying the light on Jamie, turning his skin from beige to ghastly white, quite literally becoming the whitest thing in Mudbound.  It's a rare moment where Ronsel's skepticism of Jamie's self-mythologizing shifts Jamie's presentation of himself, and it's Ronsel's doubt that eventually leads Jamie to his biggest failure and small - if still radical - action to change his community.

The growing relationship between Jamie and Ronsel that serves as the other storytelling ace of Mudbound.  Rees doesn't fall into the self-defeating well of respectability politics with Ronsel, and Mitchell's bursts of fiery charisma make Ronsel a character who will fight for the dignity denied by the eldest McAllan (Jonathan Banks, unleashing all his Breaking Bad intensity).  Hedlund is less impressive as Mitchell, but his mild performance shortcomings get a lift from the screenplay cowritten by Rees and Virgil Williams.  The gradual build from lightly condescending relationship to Jamie abandoning showy displays of charity for direct action is one I can't easily ignore.

Rachel Morrson's cinematography produces menace alongside beauty with this white devil in the dark.

Mudbound has its flaws and I'm curious how many of them are tied to the original novel by Hillary Jordan.  Mulligan is one of the best performers of her generation but is hamstrung by a domestic romance crisis that leaves her little room to create a character outside the growing sexual tension between Laura and Jamie.  Banks, similarly, is frightening in his racist proclamations but is so one-dimensional in the banality of his evil that his involvement with the Klu Klux Klan comes as less of a disruption and more an all too expected show of villainous force.  Rees soars when she's working with Jamie and Ronsel, probably because their struggles to find meaning after being used by an indifferent government reflect the working class troubles of Pariah.

Those issues are so minor that they're worth mentioning but should get scant consideration in your decision to watch Mudbound or not.  Rees hasn't just updated the southern gothic stories of William Faulkner for our troubled times.  She's reclaimed the storytelling terrain as her own, working with Morrison to absolutely clown all other visual artists in the variety of textured images possible with human skin (looking at you James Franco).  Suffering may not have inherent meaning, but with artists like Dee Rees telling the story we may know what to do by making our next actions count for more.

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Mudbound (2017)

Directed by Dee Rees.
Screenplay written by Dee Rees and Virgil Williams.
Starring Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige, and Rob Morgan.

Posted by Andrew

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