New York Film Festival Review: Mudbound

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Somehow, in a year where racial relations outside of the multiplexes have only gotten worse, Mudbound is one of the only high-profile films in the awards conversation that deals with them. Sadly, that’s a lot of weight for this modest yet undeniably effective film to carry. Director Dee Rees doesn’t so much alter the formula on southern-set historical films about race as much as she smartly tweaks it.

By way of the cruelty of man, two families, one black, one white, have to provide and survive in the harsh, typically soaking farmlands of Mississippi starting in 1939. Both families have sons that ship off to fight the Axis Powers in Europe, and in the meantime have to rely on each other for help, but with the white family leaning significantly harder on the black one. The drawn out first act meanders its way around setting up the far better second half of the film, but it also introduces a great many main protagonists, many of which dissolve into secondary characters once the two boys come back from overseas. Among them, you’ve got the matriarchs and patriarchs of each family. As the former, Mary J. Blige might give the performance of the film, while Carey Mulligan struggles a bit to initially connect with the audience. As the latter, Jason Clarke is complicatedly drawn in the prolonged first act, but becomes simpler and more one-note as the film carries on, while Rob Morgan is steadfast in who he is all the way through.

But how richly the film intends these characters to be seems for naught once Jaime (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) return from the war. Their budding friendship in this small Mississippi town, away from the progress and drama of war, brings them together like war buddies, despite having never met before. Hedlund, somewhat surprisingly, delivers his best performance in a film yet, giving his character a multifaceted approach to how the race issue affects him. He sees that what’s going on around him is wrong, while respecting Ronsel, but he perhaps underestimates it, just as many of us underestimated the hate still very much present in this country before the events in Charlottesville this past summer.

It’s impossible to watch Mudbound and its seemingly archaic period and not be saddened by how little things have changed. But then that’s what makes the film so necessary for the present, more so than the great films made about this topic from even just a few years ago. Still, from a critical standpoint, where Rees stumbles, she really stumbles. A hefty round of editing and a tighter focus on specific characters could have made Mudbound not just a very good film, but a great one. It’s odd to say that very good isn’t enough, but for the film’s wonderfully understated approach and strong exploration of it’s relevant themes, it just isn’t. The film boasts undeniably rich rewards, however, you just might have to exude a little more patience than preferred to get them. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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