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Mudbound

By: Trevor Chartrand

Showcasing the contrast between two farming families in Mississippi, Mudbound examines the overbearing racist climate of the southern states in the 1940s.  Based on a novel of the same name and directed/co-written by Dee Rees, the film takes place both during and after the Second World War.  When a white family takes ownership of a Mississippi farm, they find themselves living in the fields among the black farmhands who will work for them.  In the years that follow, the film centres on the opposing experiences of the farm-owners versus the farm-workers: both lead difficult, but different lives, despite sharing the same property.

Teaming with a rich cast of strong characters, Mudbound is driven by the differing values of the Jackson and McAllan families.  Despite having social privilege, the Caucasian members of the McAllan family struggle primarily with domestic issues.  They are dysfunctional at best, without a single strong relationship among them.  Conversely, the onscreen chemistry within the Jackson family is so much more meaningful and enthralling.  The persecuted and victimized Jackson family is truly the heart of the film.  In a world that hates them, they share a relentless, vivid love for one another.  This is exemplified during a fantastic quiet moment between Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), when the two of them simply embrace, dancing together accompanied only by their own voices.  In a film filled with so much conflict and intolerance, fleeting peaceful moments like these stand out.

The most memorable relationship forms when two veterans return from the war, one from each of the two families.  As a black war vet, Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) returns to Mississippi facing rampant discrimination, while the white Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) is welcomed as a hero.  Bonded by their overseas experience, Jamie and Ronsel become friends.  When Jamie’s family begins to threaten Ronsel, Jamie is forced to choose between standing up to his own kin or keeping the status quo.  Hedlund especially stands out in his role as Jamie, the ever-drunk PTSD-sufferer desperate to find his place following the war.

Mudbound looks lived-in, bleak and gritty, with the muddy farm being far from the paradise the McAllan’s had hoped to find.  The setting, costumes, and production design all work together to establish the period, effectively placing viewers in the 1940s.  With one exception, the film looks authentic through and through.  The outlier scene takes place during the war, and it’s the one time this dramatic character study oversteps its ambition by trying to execute a fighter plane action sequence.  Likely due to budgetary restrictions, the entire dogfight is shot from the inside of the cockpit with only the pilots and their seats visible.  The few visual effects that do appear outside the plane are average at best, reducing the sense of authenticity established by the rest of film.

While Mudbound is undoubtedly a well-made, effective film, I do have one major gripe with the execution of the story.  I don’t understand why Netflix has apparently made it their mandate to have so many of their original productions, including Mudbound, entirely driven by off-screen narration.  You know that disembodied voice in TV shows and movies that speaks each character’s internal thoughts, spelling things out for the audience?  It’s an overused, dated technique that still appears in countless Netflix originals, including their popular television shows Ozark and Dear White People – it’s getting a little tiring.  I find it distracting any time a narrator fills in the blanks for me.  The whole concept of narration ignores the ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra most filmmakers are instructed to abide by, and it tends to pull me out of the film.

Mudbound is especially guilty of this, with meandering voice-over aplenty.  Featuring an ensemble cast, the intermittent narration continuously shifts from one character’s voice to another.  Its sporadic, spontaneous use is especially frustrating when the technique vanishes for lengthy periods, only to disengage viewers further upon its random return.  The film loses some of its lustre due to this overbearing narration.

Despite this, Mudbound certainly provides a powerful look at the post-WWII American south.  It’s a gut-wrenching and poignant film, with well-crafted characters and relationships that truly feel real.

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