Hello, I’m The Thin White Duke, and I forgot the day that I was supposed to post this thing. Oh well. Anyway, today I’m here to talk about one of the very best films of last year: the beautiful, emotionally shattering Mudbound. Released as a Netflix exclusive, and nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Song, and Best Cinematography. The nominations made history, marking the first time a woman (the incredibly talented Rachel Morrison) was nominated for Cinematography, as well as giving Mary J. Blige the distinction of becoming the first person at the Oscars to ever be nominated for an acting and song award in the same year. If you ask me, the Academy blew it by not giving Dee Rees a nomination for Best Director, and not giving the film a nod for Best Picture too. But let’s get on with the show. With this discussion, I’ll explain why this movie works so well, and give you guys to chat about it in the comments below. Do you agree with me, or find it overrated? Or maybe you haven’t seen it yet, or haven’t even heard of it. In that case, don’t worry, I’ll be keeping this discussion spoiler-free! Now, lets mention the key players in this movie:
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jonathan Banks
Director: Dee Rees
Written By: Dee Rees and Virgil Williams, based on the novel by Hillary Jordan
Cinematography: Rachel Morrison
It’s due to the extraordinary work of these talented people that the film is so brilliant, in my opinion. Let’s start with the cast, and oh what a killer cast this movie has.
Mudbound tells the story of two families living in poor rural Mississippi after World War II – one white, one black. Each family deals with poverty and crushed dreams, and each has a young man who returns from the war with severe PTSD. The two men soon meet and become good friends, which leads to tragedy. Despite this simple plot, the film is able to cover a multitude of heavy issues (such as racism, poverty, war, sexism, classism, PTSD, violence and more) and deal with each of them thoughtfully and maturely. That the film is able to address so many issues, all while telling a compelling story of the past while simultaneously being timely is due to the talents of Dee Rees and the cast. This is one of the few movies where every lead and supporting performance is excellent.
Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke turn in their usually great work, and Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan are outstanding and sympathetic as the heads of the Jackson family. But for me the two best performances of this film were also the ones that surprised me the most, and those came from Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell. Before watching this movie, I considered Hedlund to be a bland teen idol also-ran, and Mitchell only having an ok performance as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton to his name. But both men really wowed me in this movie. As Jamie and Ronsel, respectively, Hedlund and Mitchell bring genuine emotion and humanity to their characters, which is crucial because the relationship between the two of them is the core of the movie. Both Jamie and Ronsel have served in WWII, and suffer from PTSD that only a fellow survivor could understand. The friendship between them is understated and emotive, with the two men playing against the other perfectly. Moments of drunken humor give way to quiet moments full of power and social commentary, then back to bullshitting again. My favorite scenes of the movie both take place in an abandoned barn where Jamie and Ronsel go to drink and hang out. In the first one, the friendship is still in it’s early stages, and the men stand far apart. Jamie tells a wartime story about how his life was saved by a black pilot, while revealing hints of the survivors guilt he feels. By the end of the scene, the two men are closer both literally in the room, and figuratively in friendship. The second barn scene shows the two men bullshitting and drinking, before the conversation turns to whether they miss “being over there”. In this powerful scene Mitchell is able to show Ronsel’s confusion at his journey from “liberator” overseas, to the racism of his home country that seeks to bring him to a lowly state. Then Ronsel is able to tell Jamie of the German girl he fell in love with overseas, and you can see the pain on his face as he struggles to hold back his words and tears. It’s a powerful moment of un-showy acting by both men, and it brings a tear to my eye on each watch.
Mudbound was my introduction to Dee Rees, and her work as a director on this film is amazing. Thanks to Rachel Morrison and her beautiful, well-lit cinematography, Rees is able to tell this story in the sweeping style of past epics by Terrence Malik and George Stevens. With this backdrop, Rees tells a purely human story, with the best and worst of humanity on full display. The gentleness of the tender moments between characters is offset by the scenes of truly shocking and brutal violence. Although its scenes of wartime are brief, and contained mostly in small spaces to hide the minuscule special effects budget this movie has, they contain sudden and bloody moments of violence that are sometimes avoided in full-length war movies. Rees is skillful at showing truly horrific violence, but the inevitable racially motivated violence at the end sticks out more to me. It is hard to watch, despite not much being shown. Rees chooses instead to shoot this scene mostly in close-ups and medium shots, making the agony and pain in the characters faces impossible to ignore, while sharply contrasting with the cruel and stony faces of those perpetrating this horrific violence.
Mudbound is a poetic, heartbreaking film, one that stays with the viewer long after the credits roll. Rees steadily directs these amazing actors to each give powerful performances. Each character feels lived in and real, with real hopes, dreams, desires and fears. It shows us an honest depiction of poverty and racism not seen in many American films of recent years, and shows these hardships without hysteria or beating you over the head with a message. It simply exists, and immerses you in this dirty, hardscrabble world these characters inhabit. But despite this hardship throughout the movie, Mudbound surprises on ending on a somewhat hopeful note, a sign of “what could be” rather than the ugly reality of “what is”. Is it idealistic? Perhaps, but this glimmer of hope rises from the literal mud in this movie and lingers, offering an escape from the ugliness around it. It’s a beautiful film, superbly made, and it is easily the best Netflix film yet. (Sure, there ain’t much competition, but so what?) When people ask me what some of the best movies of this decade were, I won’t hesitate before putting Mudbound on that list, and I hope you won’t either.
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