“Mudbound is the Oscar movie we need right now,” admonished The Washington Post.
Distributed by Netflix (there were no other takers following its Sundance premiere), it’s a female-directed drama about two families – one white, one black – living side by side in the Jim Crow South. The script is adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2006 Bellwether Prize-winner (for ‘socially engaged fiction’).
It’s perfectly-timed, with the film industry currently under scrutiny for #OscarsSoWhite. There was a landslide of articles emphasizing the tough shoot and the transformation of star Mary J. Blige, warning voters that the movie must not be overlooked.
The story’s premise involves stubborn idealist Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) dragging his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), their family and racist father Pappy to a dilapidated farm in the Mississippi Delta, where the frequent rains strand them in acres of mud.
Their lives become entangled with those of their share tenants, Hap and Florence Jackson (Blige), who keeps house for the McAllans. They’re joined by Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and the Jackson’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), both returning from WWII Europe.
While the two veterans form a bond that riles Pappy, Laura becomes infatuated with her brother-in-law. However, in a departure from the prickly character of Laura in the book, she isn’t checking his shirts for lipstick, or taking her frustrations out on long-suffering Florence.
Critics have described the movie as focused on two Strong Women whose differing views of the world are shaped by race and class etc etc. According to Refinery39, “both women…feel the growing weight of a patriarchal society bearing down on their shoulders...”
This is an interesting projection, as – in what is a very long, slow movie – writer-director Dee Rees instead concentrates on the friendship between 6’2 leading man Hedlund and quirky little character actor Mitchell (miscast as the noble Ronsel).
Rees keeps Jordan’s strategy of spreading narration between six characters, but it is not Ronsel so much as Jamie who emerges as the clear hero. Hedlund is more enlightened than his book counterpart – who was clearly shocked by interracial dating. Here, he leers: “Ever been with a white girl?“.
It’s a shame that his drunken encounter with a hapless cow has been culled, along with other dark moments of incongruity in Jordan’s confident page-turner.
What the film does achieve, despite a tiny budget, is a truly epic look, especially in the flashback scenes. We get lots of stunning farmland vistas courtesy of Rachel Morrison’s cinematography, which earned her the distinction of becoming the first woman to be Oscar nominated in the category.
Deferential Oscar voters also handed Blige a best supporting actress nod for doing little more than look dignified with her arms crossed, while Dee Rees earned an adapted screenplay nomination for turning a historical suspense into solemn prestige.