R for violence. This isn't the violence that is cheered for. This is the kind that makes you want to weep. It's rough and digs deep into the soul. There's language and there's hatred. Sometimes I simply state that a movie is R because I list all of the MPAA ratings. This one is R because it shows the ugliness of the human condition.
DIRECTOR: Dee Rees
I'm well entrenched in Oscar season. It's my favorite time of year by a lot. I know, people roll their eyes at the Oscars. "They don't matter." I get it. They really don't. But people see it as self-congratulations. I see it as a time to celebrate film. This is real and proper film. Sure, I often disagree with the Academy and there are often movies on that list that I properly dislike. But these are all movies where people tried really hard. I know that there is a studio behind them and that studio wants to make money, but often there is a proper artists who wants their story exposed to the world. Mudbound is a Netflix original. I don't think it got a proper theatrical release and before The Meyerowitz Stories, I believed that Netflix originals was just a dumping ground for good-but-not-great movies. While Mudbound will never really make any of my greatest films list, Mudbound represents what a movie is when it gets truly personal and engaging.
The first half I did not like. There. I said it. I really thought I was going to be enraptured from minute one, but the format of the movie isn't necessarily always engaging. This is not to say that there isn't a quality movie there. I don't even think mistakes were made. It's just that a lot of the movie, especially the first half, is dependent on characterization and style that I was desperate for some cohesive narrative to tie the film together. I know, film doesn't technically need a traditional narrative. But I often like narrative and if a story lacks a traditional structure and I say that I don't mind, I'm probably lying to both you and myself. There are very few stream of consciousness movies that I jump on board. That's probably not an absolute, but I know me and me likes story structure. I also might be a bit tainted by the casting of the guy I until this moment thought was Joel Edgerton. Nope, it was Jason Clarke. I dare you to go back and forth between those two guys and tell me that you recognize one from the other. I was going to point out that Joel Edgerton was Carey Mulligan's husband in The Great Gatsby, but none of this is true. I was also going to point out that Joel Edgerton tends to play a lot of racists (except in Bright, where he is apparently the target of race). But I had noticed that Edgerton / Clarke tend to be in a lot of okay movies versus amazing movies. Regardless, a lot of the first part of the film depends on the aesthetics. The odd choice, and I think it works in the long run, is the bookending structure that this movie provides. Having the chronology all mixed up implies that there will be quite a few strong dramatic beats in this movie only to find out that the movie is kind of a slow burn. It is only once WWII starts that the movie picks up in anyway that's really worth salvaging. Really, the last hour of the film is completely aces (pun intended). I know why the first hour and twenty minutes of the film are there, but I think the characters are fleshed out faster than the filmmakers give it credit for. I get Henry's foibles and I understand Hap's frustration with white America. Laura, perhaps, is the most fleshed out. The things that we need to know about these characters are very clearly laid out through narration, so the very long intro into this movie is slightly indulgent. I mean, I like the fact that the director wants us to have relationships with these characters, but pacing really becomes a problem in the first act.
Once the last hour of the movie begins, that's when things get great. As compelling as the seemingly primary cast is, it is the relationship between Jamie and Ronsel that sells the film. I want to believe this is a movie about farming and rural Alabama (?), but this is a tale of two guys who find healing in a friendship that no one else can understand. The race idea is central to their friendship, but the reason that they bond is that they can't adapt from being genuine heroes to being seen as a blight on this backwards society. Perhaps the themes are ones we've seen before, but condensing the meat of the movie into the last hour might actually be extremely beneficial. I wonder if the Rees saw her options as either A) we don't have enough content for a really good intense movie or B) if we go through the whole thing, we could make two movies squashed together into a kind of a long film. She went with the second and I can't begrudge her that. By the time Jamie and Ronsel start hanging out together, they are really well developed characters. So it works. Also, both of them have a relationship with the antagonist, played by the excited-to-see-him-in-a-movie Jonathan Banks. I love Jonathan Banks and boy-oh-boy, does he ever play such a turd. He's so good at it. Pappy is the worst and I have to compliment both Banks and Dees in establishing his character. He is this constant threat looming all of the characters. He's just so scary and so messed up. He's not even a character you love to hate. He's just a despicable character and that makes this movie kid of a horror movie.
I want to talk about Carey Mulligan because my wife will watch anything Carey Mulligan is in. She's great, but I also only really appreciate her across from Mary J. Blige. Mulligan seems to play a lot of characters in the vein of the put upon bride. This one is a fair deal of torture to her, but she doesn't always play it with grace. This is a choice, I think. Perhaps I'm just getting weary with Mulligan playing the same part again and again, but she seems to be more annoyed by the environment she is in than actively fighting against it. I think it is the line where Mulligan's Laura is first introduced. She is complaining about the mud that surrounds her farm (she does know the name of the movie, right?) And then we get to see how she got there. I think it is my disrespect of dramatic irony, but as the audience, we know the mistake she is making marrying Henry. When things go poorly for her, I can't help but kind of blame her. It is only her relationship with Florence that she becomes tolerable, but never actually likable. Florence is this woman of grace who never seems like this situation is beneath her. I don't love the "white savior" story because it is kitty litter for many. I don't think Mudbound is doing that. There is one line that says that the black family had never seen a white woman in that way, but I don't think it is falling over this one act of gratitude. Rather, narratively (sorry!), it gives Carey Mulligan's character someone to focus on other than herself. Really, I'm surprised that the kids don't get any real attention this story shy of paying attention to a terrible whooping cough.
The end is rough. I can't dance around that. It is a bummer and people know that I like really rough endings on things. It isn't completely devoid of hope, but you aren't going to leave this movie feeling like a million bucks. Honestly, watch the trailer on Netflix and tell me that you thought this movie was going to have a happy ending. You can't, and hopefully it isn't because you don't have Netflix. It's a movie about racism in the South, so let's just say that we know how this story was going to go. I really like the end, but I also know that most people now get mad at me for recommending movies and books that are complete bummers. But the world isn't always completely happy. Ignoring the dark isn't always a good idea. Ignoring history is an even worse idea. The darkness of this movie is real, but Mudblood isn't presenting evil because it can. It is presenting evil because it shows good people enduring and overcoming that evil. I really like this movie, but it does have some major pacing issues. Regardless, I'm overall impressed with it.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.