A well-acted drama with an interesting story that unfortunately struggles with narrative focus and consistent tone
Netflix has added to their ever-growing library of original films with Dee Rees’ Mudbound. Whilst the film is well-acted and offers up some powerful moments, it does suffer from a lack of focus on both its story and characters whilst spoon-feeding the audience some of its finer details.
Set during the World War Two era, the film follows the lives of two families, the white McAllans and the black Jacksons, living on the same farm in Mississippi. The McAllans made up of Henry (Jason Clarke), Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their two children own the land upon which the Jacksons, Hap (Rob Morgan), Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their children work on. The two both have ties to the ongoing war, with Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), Hap’s son, and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), Henry’s brother, both fighting in Europe. When the two return, they develop a friendship which, whilst therapeutic for one another, increases the already mounting tension between the two families.
When looking at the film as a whole, Mudbound tells a moving story with important themes that look at the racial prejudices of the time. Whilst watching the film though, it’s hard to see it as anything but choppy in its structure. There is a significant lack of focus in the film’s narrative with the perspective shifting between six different characters, which makes hard to care for some as much as others. For example, as great as Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige are as Laura and Florence respectively, their stories are simply not as interesting as Ronsel’s or Jamie’s as the latter are given far more time to develop.
When the film does focus on Ronsel and Jamie’s friendship, however, it significantly picks up in quality. The two veterans’ relationship is by far the most interesting part of the film as it touches upon the more interesting themes, such as race and post-war guilt, and, by the end, becomes the main source of conflict. The veterans come together, having shared the horrific experiences of the war, and do so despite the racial feelings of the time in the southern states that would have otherwise forbidden their friendship. Both Garret Hedlund and Jason Mitchell are excellent throughout the film with their scenes together resulting in some of Mudbound’s most poignant moments
The film is very well shot, with cinematographer Rachel Morrison and director Rees both doing an excellent job. The Mississippi farmland looks equally beautiful and desolate at varying points in the film and this great camerawork adds to the overarching dark tone. There is, however, an incredibly dark sequence towards the end which seemingly comes out of nowhere and feels especially grim in comparison to the rest of them. As well made and impactful as this moment is, it doesn’t feel earned when put next to the rest of the film and feels a little out of place.
Mudbound is also guilty of spoon-feeding information to the audience. There is narration throughout the film and for the most part, it compliments each scene it’s in. Other times though, it serves only to explain to the audience what was already obvious in terms of how characters are feeling about a situation. This is also the case for some of the films flashback sequences. There is one moment where a certain character is distressed as a result of his PTSD and, whilst to many, this will already be apparent, we flashback to previous scenes that have been shown not too much earlier in the film in order to fully explain it. This is a shame as these moments could have been far more impactful had it not been for this over explanation.
Overall, Mudbound is a well-acted film that deals with important subject matter and tells a good story. It does though have issues in terms of focus on its key characters and narratives as well as tonal and editing issues which serve only to throw off the audience. It is, however, worth watching for its performances and core story.
Mudbound (2017), directed by Dee Rees, is available to stream on Netflix, certificate 15.