Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Mudbound: A Review


I have been an admirer of writer/director Dee Rees ever since her spectacular debut Pariah.  Ever since then, however, Rees has been more hit than miss.  Her television movie biopic of Bessie Smith was decent but not as good as it could have been, and now we have Mudbound, an adaptation of Hillary Jordan's novel.  It is not a bad film, but it has a central flaw that I simply could not overlook.

Mudbound covers the sometimes parallel, sometimes intertwined lives of two families in pre/post-World War II Mississippi, one black, one white.  The Jackson family has been sharecropping for generations ever since an act of violence stole their legal right to the land.  The McAllan family are recent arrivals.  Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) was semi-prosperous, but he was swindled in a land deal.  Thinking he was going to buy a nice farm with a house, he finds the house already legally occupied, forcing him and his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), their daughters and his father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) to live in a shack.

The Jacksons have their own troubles.  The patriarch Hap (Rob Morgan) is a stern but loving father to his children, while his wife Florence (Miss Mary J. Blige) is a devoted housewife.  They all worry for their oldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who has been recruited to go to war.  They also have to endure poverty and the legal discrimination against them.

The McAllans also are contributing to the war effort with Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), Hank's younger and dreamier Shakespeare-quoting brother.  Jamie becomes a pilot, Ronsel a tank commander.  Ronsel finds that the Europeans are better than the Americans: they are not racists and actually happy to see him.  He even finds a French lover.

It is after the war that the McAllans and Jacksons really begin to collide.  Florence, with reluctance, has started working for Laura after helping the girls get through the whooping cough.  The family needs the money after Hap is injured in an accident and the family struggles to farm.

When Jamie and Ronsel come home, neither really gets a hero's welcome.  Pappy is dismissive of his son's actions, commenting it's easy to kill when you are not looking the enemy eye-to-eye.  Pappy also happens to be a vile racist, and is incensed when Ronsel wants to exit a grocery store through the front door.  The delicate balance between the races is coming undone by Jamie, who is fast becoming a shell-shocked alcoholic, and Ronsel, who is chafing at the life he has returned to.  Despite their radically different worlds, Jamie and Ronsel become friends of sorts, bonding over their mutual war experiences good and bad.

It isn't until Pappy and his cohorts see Ronsel riding alongside Jamie, and worse, when Pappy uncovers not only Ronsel's trysts with a white woman, but that said trysts now have produced a child, that we get shocking acts on both sides, with tragedy for many but not without  in the end, a touch of hope.

Mudbound has one grand flaw, one thing that pushes it down: voice-overs.  Longtime readers know I generally detest voice-overs, finding them annoying, intrusive, and a lazy way to explain things.  I'm not opposed to voice-overs in general because they can work and serve a purpose (Blade Runner, Sunset Boulevard).  However, for the most part I find voice-overs to be a hindrance.

Having one voice-over is bad enough, but Mudbound has four: Laura, Florence, Jamie and Ronsel. In some particularly bad moments, one voice-over follows another, and it virtually turned Mudbound into an audiobook instead of a movie.  Long stretches of acting is interrupted by another voice-over, and we pretty much begin and end Mudbound with a voice-over.  It makes it hard to settle on whose story we are telling or under what setting the voice-overs take place in.

Are these voice-overs reminiscences?  Are they set in that time?  Are they to further the plot or explore motivations?  If it is the latter, then they should not be there.

Sometimes Mudbound is almost slightly unintentionally comical.  In a dogfight with Jamie, we have an unknown man as his copilot, worrying about making it to the next day.  Jamie promises he'll get him back home in one piece.

You know if someone promises such a thing, that other character is as good as dead.

Other elements and story elements get lost or aren't explained.  There's a subplot about Henry's white field hand Karl that does not hold up.  We don't know who he is, why Henry fires him, or why his wife Vera went out to kill him.  Technically, we do know as we're given information in pieces, but it does not add much if anything to the Jackson/McAllan stories, almost as poetic distractions.

Mudbound, to my mind, was a bit choppy in its storytelling, and it is surprising that a talented filmmaker like Rees could not see that there were simply too many voice-overs, too many curious threads (like Jamie and Henry referring to each other as 'Brother' repeatedly) that felt off.

Still, it is not possible to disparage Mudbound for when things do go right.  The most effective moments are when Rees drops that damn voice-over and lets the story flow.  The final third of the film, where Rondel's scandal is uncovered by Pappy is shocking and heartbreaking, though a bit confusing to me (I thought he was dead, making the final scene at first a bit strange).

The best performance for me was Morgan and Hap, a man who has strength and respect but who also knows how far to go and push.  He is a fascinating character who would be a good film to himself.  Miss Blige too is elegant and strong as Florence, a woman who loves her family and who is never subservient to anyone.  Mulligan is one of my favorite actresses, and her Laura played well in the character's barely hidden anger about her reduced situations.  Mitchell's Ronsel too brought a mixture of strength and vulnerability: strength in standing up for himself to the racists, vulnerability when it came to his French paramour.

I found Banks' Pappy good but a slight caricature, doing nothing but growing at someone, but that was the character, so I'm not going to quibble.  Hedlund is determined to give a performance, and what better way to show it than to play a PTSD-afflicted veteran who uses booze as anesthesia,  but I wasn't overwhelmed.  Same with Clarke, and I like him as an actor.

Mudbound is desperate to be great but it suffocates under its own sense of greatness.  It takes its time getting to where it wants to go, and these are some of the elements that push Mudbound down.  It could have been great, if it had gotten out of its own way.

And those four damn voice-overs...


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