Mudbound, directed by Dee Rees, is a film that during the early stages, spins its wheels and directs its focus in all the wrong places. The film fills time with melodrama and nothing much else, until it finally finds what should have always received its attention. I felt myself detaching from the film in the beginning; settling in for something that I would soon forget once it had finished, but the story and characters it then found and shone a light on, may have saved the film. Or did they, was this ultimately a wasted 134 minutes? Let’s explore that question and more, in my review, and see if this film is worth clicking over to Netflix for.
Based upon the novel by Hillary Jordan, we follow two families who live and work on a farm in rural Mississippi in 1941, but one with family being white and the other black, the way in which they are treated is of course very different. But one primary thing they have in common, is that each had a member of their family off fighting the Germans in the war. Jamie McAllan – played by Garrett Hedlund – and Ronsel Jackson – played by Jason Mitchell – both return from the war, but not the same as when they left. One thing that is still the same is how the colour of their skin, dictates how they are treated. Despite this, the two form a friendship through their experiences during the war, however that friendship may be their undoing.
I found it really difficult to connect or engage with anything in Mudbound, in the beginning. It felt as if the film was meandering around, focusing on characters who weren’t necessarily that interesting or that had much that was compelling about them.
The film directs its focus on a handful of characters and while there are some aspects to them that are interesting, it wasn’t interesting enough to hold my attention for long. Much of what drives the film in the beginning is bland melodrama; little developments that are made to seem like more than they really are; children getting sick, someone injuring themselves and being unable to work. The film is forever spinning up a new point of potential conflict or drama that is designed purely for making it seem like there is something important happening. I didn’t subscribe to the continuous attempts and soon found myself detaching from the experience that the film was trying to offer.
It didn’t help that the characters I was hopeful for in the beginning (to deliver on some possibly compelling elements) soon just became melancholy, dour individuals who never seemed to grow or begin to develop beyond their base characteristics. The film felt circular at this point – like it was either searching for something compelling or was waiting until it could get to it (turns out, it was very much the latter).
But the unfortunate thing about the meandering points of the film, was that talented actors felt like they were being wasted; Jason Clarke – who plays Henry McAllan – Carey Mulligan – who plays Laura McAllan – Rob Morgan – who plays Hap Jackson – Jonathan Banks – who plays Pappy McAllan – Mary J. Blige – who plays Florence Jackson – are all great talents and I’ve seen them in many projects where I’ve really enjoyed their work, and so it was a shame to not see them used, to what I feel, to be their best ability. The only point I ever felt like the film was evolving them as characters, was when it would have a voiceover come from the character, explaining their state of mind or their current situation, but that brings up an issue in itself.
Personally, I’m not a fan of when films rely on voiceover to develop its story or characters. For me, it’s lazy. Rather than communicating information through all the channels at your disposal, opting to just flat-out tell the audience everything – leaving them no reason to think for themselves – is poor filmmaking (again, in my opinion). It’s so much more rewarding to watch, assess and understand the many elements of a film for yourself. It should almost be an interactive experience, where the film makes you feel a part of its story, its characters and its world. In Mudbound, you are simply told what you need to know and are given no reason to engage for yourself – perhaps another reason why I found myself disconnected from the film in its early half.
But then there’s a shift; the film changes its primary focus and points it towards, Jake McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell). It is in these two men’s stories’ that the film finds something meaningful and thought-provoking. They both leave to go to war not knowing one another and having nothing in common; they fight for their country, lose friends and experience true hardship, but they come back, they see their families once again. However, they are treated very differently. Ronsel is still looked down upon, because of the colour of his skin; he’s still expected to leave a store through the backdoor, racial slurs are thrown his way. Despite doing an incredibly brave and noble thing, he is still seen as less. Whereas it is of course a very different situation for Jake.
But it is in their mental battle wounds, that the two find friendship. No one else knows what they went through and only they can find comfort in their issues by sharing them with one another. This is what the film should have made more its focus. When it finally got to this point in the story and I was wholly attentive to every moment the two characters spent together in Mississippi, I was left irritated that the film hadn’t gotten to it sooner, but also relieved that it now had. I understand that it wanted to establish and develop the story back home in the U.S., but it didn’t need to spend as much time as it did, twiddling its thumbs, waiting for the real story to get home from the war.
It made me sick to my stomach to see how two men who went off and sacrificed everything to defeat an impossibly evil enemy, return home and be treated with a total lack of respect. But I feel the film did an excellent job of not shying away from this and really painted an honest and fair story. And more than that, it took the time to explore these incredibly rich characters. Of course I would have wanted more, but I’m so glad that I got what I did, because it really did make sitting through the earlier half of the film worth it. The bond the two men form, the rage-inducing honesty in which the film highlights the treatment of two brave soldiers and the pay-off to everything the film did over the course of 134 minutes, ended up delivering an experience that I found something meaningful in.
Now, that will not be the case for everyone; the commitment that this film asks of you, is one that I think is probably too much for some people. To have nearly half of the film feel unfulfilling is going to turn some people away, and while I was pulled back in by Jake and Ronsel’s story, it may not be enough for some.
In the end, I’m going to recommend, Mudbound. I certainly had issues with this film (something I think I fairly comment upon), but they weren’t issues that in the end detracted from a meaningful film, for me. However, I’m not confident that will be the case for everyone. If you find the time and what you’ve read here still makes you interested in watching Mudbound, then load up your Netflix and give it a watch. I hope you find something worthy in this film, like I did.
I’m really interested to read what you thought of the film and my review of it, so please leave any opinions or feedback in the comments section down below. Also, it would be great if you could follow both my blog and my Twitter – @GavinsRamblings. But I’ll bring this review to a close by thanking you for taking the time to read my review and wishing you a fantastic day!