For Your Consideration: Two Cents Finds Itself MUDBOUND

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick

Netflix has long been the reigning king of the ‘binge-viewing’ model for television shows, with early hits like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black immediately announcing that the streaming service could go toe-to-toe with titans like HBO and AMC in cultural cache and awards show glitter. But where Netflix has flourished with TV shows, it has stumbled with film, unable to get traction with their features.

2017 saw Netflix make a marked push to expand their library and their acclaim, sporting new films by Bong Joon-Ho, Noah Baumbauch, Joe Swanberg, and even got in the blockbuster game with the Will Smith-fronted Bright.

But perhaps the crown jewel of Netflix’s 2017 catalog is Mudbound, a sprawling historical epic from director/co-writer Dee Rees. Working from the novel by Hillary Jordan, Rees etches in uncompromising detail the triumphs and travails of two families, one black, one white, as they work the Mississippi land during and just after World War II.

Director Dee Rees and Mary J. Blige

On the one hand there’s the McAllens, led by Henry (Jason Clarke), who impulsively decides one day to pull up stakes on his comfortable suburban life and move his wife (Carey Mulligan), daughters, and virulently racist father (Jonathan Banks) out to the Mississippi delta and build a farm there.

Their neighbors and tenants are the Jacksons, Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their children, tenant farmers that have toiled for generations in those cotton fields and dream of one day owning their own parcel of land and owing nothing to anyone.

Both families have prodigal sons overseas. Puckish Jamie McAllen (Garrett Hedlund) braves the skies while stalwart Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) drives a tank up the front lines. But when both men return to their families deeply changed by their experiences, they soon strike up a bond that sets the McAllens and the Jacksons careening towards an explosive shared destiny.

Equal parts tragic and triumph, Mudbound seemed like the perfect film to kick off our January theme: For Your Consideration, highlighting some of the best and underseen films of 2017 as you make your year-end lists.

Next Week’s Pick:

Keeping with that theme, the revenge comedy-thriller I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore got some love thanks to the dream team of writer-director Macon Blair (Blue Ruin) and stars Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood, but it seems to have been passed over for attention as we closed out the year.

No more! Give I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore a watch on Netflix and send us your thoughts anytime before midnight on Thursday.

Our Guest

Husain Sumra:

It’s a little difficult to see where Mudbound is going in the first half of the movie. You’re essentially watching the stories of two families — one white and one black in the South — as they bump into each other. You sense a sort of friction accompany a friendliness, a friendliness that’s required on the side of the Jackson family.

Then the second half of the movie begins, with Garrett Hedlund’s Jamie and Jason Mitchell’s Ronsel arrive. Both performances are excellent, and once they’re on screen the film begins to stir. Slowly the spoon of tension spins, and then it all spins out of control. The worst part is once you realize where it’s going, you’re filled with a sinking dread until it actually happens — it is absolutely soul crushing.

I can’t say this enough: Mudbound destroyed me. It broke me down and built me right back up, and I absolutely cannot stop thinking about this movie. You know how a lot of people say a movie is a slow burn? This is kind of like that, except it’s a serpent coiling around you until you’re gasping for air, then it strikes. Just do yourselves a favor and go watch Mudbound. (@hsumra)

The Team

Rod Machen:

While there have been several amazing movies dealing with slavery in the United States, the Jim Crow era has gotten less attention. Mudbound is an exception. Set during World War II in Mississippi, possibly the most Southern of Southern states, this film deftly explores life in those times on both sides of the racial divide. This is a place of sharecroppers and land-owning farmers both struggling to live off the land. The fighting overseas and its impact on the characters is especially poignant. It’s been said that black men coming back from the war were the impetus for the civil rights movement that began a decade later. Having fought and defeated Hitler and Hirohito, these soldiers were emboldened to take on white supremacy back home. Mudbound shows the great injustices that needed (need) to be overcome as well as the people who would eventually work toward those goals. The locales are earthy, the actors excellent, and the tale heartbreaking. Mudbound is a winter must watch. (@rodmachen)

Ed Travis:

Sweeping and epic in scope, though non-traditional in structure, Dee Rees’ Mudbound is an engrossing 2017 film, though not quite one of its absolute best. Adapted from a novel by Hillary Jordan, there’s a literary feel to the film which, at least at first, makes it feel a little bit “un-cinematic”. Lacking a true main character, we get narration and vignettes for quite a few different characters, all part of two different families (a black and a white family) tied together by fate and the land they work. After the initial clunkiness, the film improves on itself until the hugely emotional and satisfying climax equal parts tragic and inspiring. The great accomplishment of Mudbound is having a powerful voice to speak to America today, and still giving each character time to shine and change in a single feature film. When whites own the land and don’t deserve it, and blacks work the land with no hope of ever owning it, there’s much drama to mine. It’s also just great to see an outright American story that features (in equally engrossing and nuanced measures) the black and the white experience of rural life in the WWII era. (@Ed_Travis)

Brendan Foley:

Mudbound opens like a folk tale, sprawls like a novel, and tears its climax wholecloth from the most wretched moments in America’s history, depicted unflinchingly by Dee Rees’ camera. The secret weapon of Ree’s film, beyond the extraordinary craft and performances, is her capacity for empathy for all of her characters including (maybe even especially) the most hateful and broken of them.

Make no mistake: You will watch this film and root for Jonathan Banks to die as horribly as possible, no matter how much residual Mike Ehrmantraut love you bring to the table (and I loooooove me some Mike Ehrmantraut), but Rees finds the time in her epic to express the humanity of this monster, the touches of soul that do not make up for the monster, but make the monster all the more heinous.

Everyone is working at the peak of their powers on this one, but I have to give a special acknowledgment to Jason Mitchell. His Ronsel often seems like the most tight-lipped of the film’s many narrators, weighed down as he is by the expectations of his family, community, and country. But its Mitchell who carries the soul of the film, and Mitchell who weathers the ugliest of what the film has to offer in its closing moments. While no one character or performance qualifies as the ‘lead’ for Mudbound, by the end of the film there is no question that this is Ronsel’s story above all others, and Mitchell’s quiet presence brings it home.

If I had one knock against the film, it’s that Mudbound is a slow burn building to a moment of intimate violence that feels apocalyptic, but once that occurs Mudbound seems to sprint to wrap everything up in short order. It’s weird to wish that a film this long could be even longer, but Rees and her cast weave such an incredible tapestry that I would have been more than happy to keep watching the McAllens and Jacksons love and hate and laugh and live. Such is Mudbound. (@theTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw:

As the film gets started in establishing it characters and the situations, it’s mostly through the parents of the two families that we view their stories — fraught with disappointment and hardships on both sides, though it’s always clear that the lows are lower for the black family still beholden to “masters” of a sort. The white folks may not own them, but they own their land and that’s still a form of dominance, and one that gets exerted — often unfairly.

Once the situation is established, it’s with the end of World War II and the return of a soldier to each family that the central narrative really blossoms. While they might normally not find anything in common, the two young men bond over their shared experience and worldviews expanded by war and global travel. For Ronsel the war was an escape from the burden of his skin color; in Europe he found love and acceptance — such cruel irony that someone’s station could be so bad as to be improved by war.

Things get worse before they get better, and the film delivers a chilling and haunting climax analyzing the fruit of both love and hatred. Often in period stories, the white protagonists are depicted as noble and progressive, but Mudbound is a more honest look at Jim Crow America and the prevailing attitudes of an era in which racism was simply the norm. (@VforVashaw)

Watch it on Netflix:

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