[Film Review] Mudbound (2017)

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Title: Mudbound
Year: 2017
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama
Director: Dee Rees
Writers:
Dee Rees
Virgil Williams
based on the novel by Hillary Jordan
Music: Tamar-Kali
Cinematography: Rachel Morrison
Cast:
Carey Mulligan
Garrett Hedlund
Jason Clarke
Jason Mitchell
Mary I. Blige
Rob Morgan
Jonathan Banks
Kennedy Derosin
Frankie Smith
Joshua J. Williams
Lucy Faust
Samantha Hoefer
Kerry Cahill
Geraldine Singer
Rating: 8.1/10

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Topical epithets like “African-American”, “female”, “lesbian” can immediately boost filmmaker Dee Rees as a shoo-in of any awards consideration to validate the industry’s all-inclusivity dedication, but when MUDBOUND, her stirring second feature, misses both BEST PICTURE and BEST DIRECTOR nominations in the Oscar race, we can impute it to its bad luck, but never to the movie’s artistry, as both Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig overshadow her with the same politically correct cards (race/gender) in the directorial category, and labelled as a Netflix movie, the film may have reached more audience but is also predisposed to be brushed aside by the old guards among the Academy members on the strength of safeguarding silver-screen’s sacrosanct purity, albeit changing of the form is inexorable.

Located in Mississippi during the 1940s, MUDBOUND traces relations between two families, the McAllans, two brothers Henry (Clarke) and Jamie (Hedlund), with Henry’s wife Laura (Mulligan), their two young daughters and the brothers’ father Pappy (Banks), who own a farm and the Jacksons, headed by Hap (Morgan), their tenant farmer, with wife Florence (J. Blige) and a brood of four. Both Jamie and Ronsel (Mitchell), Jackson’s eldest son are recruited in the army to fight Nazis, the former is a bomber pilot and the latter on the ground, commands a tank in the Continent. It is their experiences in the war that brings them closer, after both are lucky enough to return home alive and kicking but find themselves beset by PTSD and wanting an aim in their post-war existence, their camaraderie will be tested in a nefarious lynch mob commotion in the climax, but salvation is well-earned with Dee Rees’ conscientious endeavor, not least in her sterling aptitude of honing up an arresting narrative: horror and anguish are produced with frenetic editing in the under-lit condition, but never overstay their welcome, tendresse and pathos are dished out in apposite quotient without ever overstating their connotations.

Told intermittently through 6 main characters’ voice-overs, this tack refreshingly fleshes out each player to constitute a fantastic ensemble, every adult in the McAllans, represents one particular mindset towards the entrenched racism, from Pappy’s Ku Klux Klan-infused abomination, Banks, who can chill you to the bone with just a glance, is one’s worst nightmare in living embodiment, which should be taken as a sincere compliment; to Henry’s matter-of-fact treatment and congenital superiority, being considerably less unbearable makes it a more insidious barrier to overtake; then there is Laura’s moderate kindness and Jamie’s genuine friendship, which regrettably are not out of sheer truism or sense of justice, but on the condition of reciprocation (Florence tends to Laura’s daughters when they are sick, and Jamie’s life is saved by a black fellow pilot), this faintly retrograde narrow-mindedness has become this reviewer’s pet peeve whenever racism is tackled in a fictitious creation.

Among its dramatis personae, R&B diva Mary J. Blige is the sole recipient of an Oscar nomination, her portrayal of Florence is palpably nuanced, composedly resilient and utterly lifelike (her proficiency of dispatching a rooster is very under-praised), not to mention with a puissant theme song MIGHT RIVER to render addition empathy during the closing credits (a double Oscar nominee this year). Carey Mulligan, on the other hand, is unfairly overlooked with her pitch-perfect incarnation of a neglected wife who is mired in a hopeless situation (her husband doesn’t even ask her opinion about their life-changing relocation), not just by debasing her appearance, Laura is “mud-bound” in the most literal way (ablutions conduces to her unsatisfied desire and liberation), like many women, she seizes her marriage as an escape of her spinsterhood, and has to live with the consequence to the boiling point, that incestuous impulse, it is not an easily legible role but Mulligan glows with assurance and true grit.

On the masculine front, Jason Mitchell is the unequivocal one who rallies our sympathy and investment, which he runs way with in steadfast strides. Rob Morgan, also rounds out with a memorable impression as the undeterred paterfamilias, sticking to his guns within sagacious boundaries, as for Garrett Hedlund, who is tasked with the most thrilling retaliation in the form of patricide, is much as good as you want him to be, which leaves Jason Clarke takes the short end of the stick with a less showier part.

It will be a great remiss to not mention that DP Rachel Morrison has become the first ever female Oscar nominee in that branch owing to her finesse of designing its period-saturated, umber-hued landscape, and grabbing 4 tickets to the Kodak theater, odds are not exactly favorable to MUDBOUND, but at the very least it officially establishes Dee Rees as an unstoppable force to be reckoned with, and spearheads a belatedly surge of (black) female filmmakers on the horizon.

referential points: Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013, 8.8/10); Ava DuVernay’s SELMA (2014, 8.1/10).

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