A Netflix epic in no time

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Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund in Mudbound.

4 star rating

There’s a genre of literary adaptation that I find particularly disappointing — not because the ensuing movies are particularly terrible, but because they’re so flat. These are the movies you watch in high school once you’re done doing the required reading: relatively faithful, down-the-middle adaptations of works that bring nothing new to the table except put images to the text you already know. These could be deemed “novelistic in the bad way,” often adapted in such a way that all of the fat has been excised to properly showcase the main events of the novel. These are particularly useful if you’re a lazy teenager who can’t be bothered to read through the entirety of Of Mice and Men, but they rarely make for the best films.

I bring all of this up because, although I have not read the novel that Dee Rees’s film Mudbound is based on, the resulting film is “novelistic in a good way.” It’s a film that takes its time, that fleshes out the characters organically and builds a world for itself in an unfussy, unmannered way that is excessively rare these days. Mudbound has all the qualities of a great television show, and yet it doesn’t require a full weekend of binge-watching to get to those qualities.

Carey Mulligan stars as Laura McAllan, “saved” from a life as an ageing spinster when she marries Henry (Jason Clarke), a family acquaintance who presents a certain image of wealth and prosperity. That all goes to shit when he decides to follow his rural dream by purchasing a farm in Mississippi. His deficient business sense means that the family needs to live in the ramshackle one-room house on the premises with their children and Pappy (Jonathan Banks), Henry’s miserly racist father.

Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) returns from fighting in WWII and moves into their home, soon befriending their neighbour Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell). The son of poor African-American sharecroppers (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige), Ronsel has also fought in the war overseas, living a life of freedom and acceptance that he doesn’t find back home on the muddy, bigot-strewn dirt roads of his hometown. Jamie and Ronsel’s friendship is frowned upon by nearly everyone — even the McAllans, who have come to rely on the Jacksons for their everyday activities.

The word epic has been bandied about a lot when talking about Mudbound, but I don’t know that it’s fully appropriate. The film has its epic moments (especially as it juxtaposes what’s happening during the war and what’s happening back on American soil) but it feels too intimate for that. It’s rich and complex and doesn’t limit itself to a single narrative strand; even as Ronsel and Jamie’s relationship becomes the focus of the film, the other characters never melt into the fabric of the background. Even its performances form a cohesive whole, with no actor trampling over the others.

It’s extremely rare to see a film this simultaneously focused and detailed, this open to letting all of its characters breathe without meandering. But it’s not hard to see where Mudbound could have faltered. It’s an emotionally charged, character-heavy story that could have been boiled down to explosive moments and setpieces. Rees expressly doesn’t do that — she turns all of its sweeping historical pomp into character moments. Its major flaw is a late-in-the-game decision to lean on narrative ambiguity, something that the film hasn’t exactly espoused elsewhere.

There was a time when period films about race almost felt corny; they felt like an automatic Oscar-grab, a shortcut to a little prestige. In some way, they felt antiquated, leading audiences to believe that this is the way that racism looks and that whatever they were seeing or living wasn’t quite the same thing. That time has gone. Mudbound feels just as urgent now, despite its 1940s setting, and it gives you that sense of urgency without holding your hand. It’s a truly mature, well-rounded drama, the likes of which are becoming increasingly rare. ■
Mudbound is on Netflix as of Friday, Nov. 17. Watch the trailer here:

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