Dee Rees’ Mudbound, the latest film festival acquisition to be dropped on Netflix with minimum promotion, is a melodrama through and through. All the usual ingredients are here: love triangles, dysfunctional families, surprise pregnancies, and maniacal villains. But there is a sincerity to the proceedings, not to mention angry political undertones, which elevate the film above the sudsy surface. Add in gorgeous cinematography and a strong ensemble, and you have a film with a story worthy of Tennessee Williams with the direction that puts in the same league as modern classics like Moonlight.
Mudbound is the story of two families sharing a farm space, circa World War II. On one side sits the McAllan’s, a white family who relocate to the harsh world of rural Mississippi after a shady real estate deal leaves them without a home. On the other side we find the Jacksons, a black family who work under the McAllans and try to make the best out of the poor conditions of their home.
Initially, the two families rarely cross paths, a fact that changes when Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) seeks the help of the Jackson matriarch Florence (Mary J. Blige) with a sick a child. Further cementing their bond: Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), the womanizing brother of the family’s patriarch, and the oldest Jackson son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) bond over their shared experiences in the war. The friendship between the two men, and the empathetic relationship between the two mothers, sets off a trail of dominos that can only lead to violence in the KKK plagued countryside.
From a storytelling standpoint, Rees hits (almost) all the right notes as the twists and turns unfold. Each scene forwards the story in some notable way, often moving the plot along but also providing key details about characters that will be important in a later sequence. Even as it switches narrators and goes on tangents about period-specific topics, Mudbound remains an intelligently written, well-paced film that injects new life in most of the genre’s conventions.
The screenplay’s only weakness is the star-crossed romance between Laura and Jamie, two in-laws whose relationship brims with sexual tension. Unfortunately, viewers will only accept this subplot due to how much of a cliché it is from the genre playbook: it’s expected, not earned, a problem more screentime for the pair could have fixed. But the script’s successful balancing of soap-opera plot twists and horrifying depictions of racism more than make up for this.
Rees also deserves a considerable amount of credit for the directorial skill she brings to the material. With one indie film to her name and a long list of TV credits, Mudbound announces the writer/director as an exciting new voice who evokes classic filmmaking techniques with a style all her own. Dialogue driven moments have a welcome tinge of Elia Kazan-esque staginess, while quieter, poetic sequences evoke the pensiveness of Terrence Malick, an unlikely marriage of tones that Rees, somehow, makes work. She brings life to even the most clichéd of moments, and taps into the human emotion that helps melodrama connect with the audience.
When a character is scared, the audience is terrified; when two characters begin to fall in love, the viewers will swoon with them. Add gorgeous cinematography from Rachel Morrison and reference-point production design by David J. Bomba, and you have a true winner from a technical standpoint.
But, ultimately, a melodrama boils down to its cast, and the large ensemble found in Mudbound deserves unwavering praise. Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund make up the heart of the film, and both actors have never been better. Hedlund has the good looks and charisma of an old-time movie star, but as his storyline grows darker, he displays some commendable dramatic chops.
Mitchell, meanwhile, perfectly captures the awkward tightrope his character walks between a youthful soul and a hardened heart, nailing every soul-crushing blow his character is faced with. The women of Mudbound shine even brighter, namely a transformative, totally unrecognizable Mary J. Blige. Few singers in recent memory have so seamlessly evolved into a top-notch actor, but Blige hits every one of her scenes out of the park. Of course, her character is given baity moments that would undoubtedly make great Oscar clips, but what’s even more impressive is the way the R&B star carries herself in the quiet moments. This is an astoundingly lived-in performance. And, not to be outdone, Carey Mulligan delivers her finest dramatic turn since her breakthrough in An Education almost 8 years ago, as she personifies her character’s growing strength in sharp body language and harsh facial expressions.
Finding a home at Netflix is a bit of a mixed bag: sure, the streaming service is sharing a long list of independent films with viewers who may not have seen them otherwise. But a film like Mudbound deserves two things: to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and to be campaigned for Academy Awards. If Mudbound landed at another studio, we’d be talking about its Best Picture chances. Instead, all this review can do is try and persuade you to seek it out.
Mudbound Overall rating: 8 out of 10.