Unless you were looking for it, odds are good that you might never stumble across a film like “Mudbound,” a small, intimate drama that snuck its way onto Netflix last week.
The tale of two families – the McAllens, a moderately affluent white family transplanted to farming country, and the Jacksons, poor African-American sharecroppers seeking out land to call their own – is in many ways a solemn reminder of where America has been and perhaps where it is today.
Acquired by Netflix after its Sundance run early this year, “Mudbound” examines racial relations and familial history in rural Mississippi during the 1940s. The film pinballs back and forth between members of both families as they experience lives of quiet desperation in the Deep South.
“Mudbound” aggressively tackles a wide variety of issues from racial inequality to the role of women in society to post traumatic stress disorder with a subtle hand of candor.
Its slow roll approach to these broad issues may disenchant and bore casual viewers, though attentive audiences may become enthralled and captivated by the film’s stunning cinematography and terrific ensemble cast.
Although “Mudbound” lacks definitive star power, director Dee Rees’ movie boasts a plethora of veteran character actors who thrive as part of the collective group.
The film’s most stunning performance is delivered by up-and-comer Jason Mitchell, who broke out in the 2005 hit “Straight Outta Compton” and dazzled in Kathryn Bigelow’s noir drama “Detroit” earlier this year.
With “Mudbound,” Mitchell tackles his most dramatic role to date as the Jackson’s eldest son Ronsel, a tank sergeant under General Patton who finds a much colder reception returning home than he did traversing Europe.
Mitchell toes the line of being aggressive with his performance without becoming showy or overstated. His ability to show more anger with his eyes than his words is mesmerizing to watch on screen and proof positive of Mitchell’s star potential in the years to come.
He shares great and effortless chemistry with Garrett Hedlund, who gives a distant yet nuanced performance as younger McAllen brother Jamie. Their uneasy, unlikely bond over wartime stories and shared post traumatic stress informs most of the film’s best moments and carries “Mudbound” for much of the film’s second half.
Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan also shine as the elder McAllen brother Henry and his wife Laura. Much of the film’s first third ironically relies on an intended lack of chemistry between Henry and his new bride and the couple’s awkward pairing comes through on screen in spades.
It sometimes feels harder for two actors to authentically capture a relationship that doesn’t work like two puzzle pieces forced together. Clarke and Mulligan make the couple’s unspoken tension feel real in a special yet tense way.
“Mudbound” rounds out its cast with outstanding supporting turns from Jonathan Banks as the McAllens’ stubbornly racist father Pappy, Rob Morgan as sharecropper/pastor Hap Jackson and an nearly unrecognizable Mary J. Blige as Hap’s wife Florence.
Rees and cinematographer Rachel Morrison do a wonderful job of giving “Mudbound” a deeply rich, vivid picturesque look that feels ripped straight out of the pages all the history book. Thankfully, the cinematography is shot in a way that accents and enhances the performances rather than impeding them.
If there is a flaw in the filmmaking, “Mudbound” consistently drags a touch from beginning to end and often relies too heavily on narration to give viewers insight into the characters.
Seemingly a strong contender come award season, “Mudbound” may fall prey to the same Netflix curse that befell 2015’s stellar yet underappreciated African warlord drama “Beasts of No Nation.” Major studio backing would probably have secured the film a best picture nomination as well as potential nods for Mitchell and Hedlund. Those certainly worthy, it’s far too early two pencil “Mudbound” in as a serious contender come Oscar season.
Regardless, this character-driven, historical drama has far too much going for it not to merit the attention of patient, smart movie lovers seeking a quality film to fall in love with on a quiet Tuesday evening.
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