“Mudbound is the Oscar movie we need right now,” admonished The Washington Post.
It’s a female-helmed drama about two families – one white, the other black – living side by side in the Jim Crow South. It seems to embody the term “Oscar bait”, with its all-star cast and a script adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2006 Bellwether Prize-winner (for ‘socially engaged fiction’).
It is also extremely well-timed, with the industry under scrutiny for its sexism #OscarsSoWhite.
One snag – Mudbound is distributed by the inexperienced awards player Netflix, and voters remain sniffy about a streaming service project that shuns traditional theatrical runs.
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.
For me, Mudbound’s Netflix berth (there were no other takers following its Sundance premiere) meant I actually got to see it. Oscar movies don’t tend to reach UK screens until after awards season.
Narrated by members of both the McAllan and the Jackson families, the story unfolds when stubborn Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) drags his prim wife Laura (a simpering Carey Mulligan), their children, plus the McAllan patriarch Pappy, to a dilapidated farm in the Mississippi Delta where the frequent rains strand them in acres of mud.
The lives become entangled with those of their share tenants, Hap and Florence Jackson (Blige), who keep house for the McAllans. Their voices are joined by Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the Jackson’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), both returning from WWII Europe.
The veterans form a bond that riles the racist Pappy, while Laura becomes infatuated with her brother-in-law – although unlike the prickly character of Laura in the book, she doesn’t check his shirts for lipstick, or take her frustrations out on Florence.
Some writers have described the movie as focused on Florence and Laura as two Strong Women whose differing views of the world are shaped by race and class 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 writer-director Dee Rees actually concentrates on the friendship between two men: 6’2 leading man Hedlund, and quirky little character actor Mitchell, who is crazily miscast as the exceptional Ronsel. (Perhaps they didn’t want anything to distract from the hero Hedlund. So it’s a film about a white guy!)
Despite a small budget and short shoot, it does manage a sparse yet epic look, especially in the flashback scenes, and 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.
Blige got 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 compulsively readable historical suspense into solemn prestige.
There is a frightening and brutal scene near the end, but so much of Jordan’s historical page-turner has been cut (including a drunken Jamie’s comic encounter with a hapless cow) it is difficult to work out why the movie is still a two hour-plus slog.