“Mudbound”

“Mudbound”
Directed by Dee Rees

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A brutally honest look at the post-WWII vet experience for those living in the isolated rural nooks and crannies of the Deep South (Mississippi), “Mudbound” is as languid as the surroundings and as heartbreaking as anything you’ll see this year.

Told through the eyes of two families whose sons have come back from the European theater, this is a tale of both the effects of PTSD for the white son and the schizoid experience of being a hero in Europe and just another victim of the worst kind of institutionalized racism in KKK territory for the black son. At its face, that might seem like two hours of bleak horror, and it certainly COULD have been, if not for the performances and the gorgeous photography.

Now, to be fair, it has its issues…a couple actually. It sure felt long (although I’m willing to admit that may have simply arisen from my discomfort at the proceedings).  And, the  love triangle sub-plot of the film has no bearing on its final outcome and seems wholly misplaced and unnecessary. Finally, I’m not sure why the film spends so much time with Jason Clarke in its first act, it is easily the least interesting aspect of the film, and, like the aforementioned love-triangle only detracts from the REAL craft of the film…how white and black cultures collide in this specific post-war environment.

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But, regardless of my problems with the directors shifting points-of-view, the acting is borderline miraculous. Our two vets, Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell (most well-known for his brilliant portrayal of Eazy-E in “Straight Out of Compton”) illustrate the inner turmoil faced by our vets in the post-deployed South: the former, living with the worst symptoms of PTSD, and the latter having his new found pride and awareness of his colorless standing in the wider world crushed in to nothingness. Of the two, Mitchell gives the more consistent performance, but Hedlund, when it matters, is up to the task. Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan give convincing performances, but because their story seems so light when compared to our dual protagonists, it’s a tough job. Clarke, especially, gets lost in the film. Never sure of where he stands and not well-written enough to overcome his standing in the overall plot, he literally leaves town when the third act takes place, and quickly leaves our mind. Carey Mulligan fares a little better, although much of that is due to her ability to inhabit the character so completely. But again, it’s not the best written part of the tale.

There are three performances, however, that ARE sensational (in addition to Mitchell), and they belong to Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan and Jonathon Banks. Blige is the surprise here…not because of how her performance compares to previous offerings as a lead, but because there AREN’T any. In what I can only assume was a terrific relationship between the actress/singer and director Rees, she eschews every bit of the flourish and gymnastics that dot her vocal performances and sticks to the tiny little things that make up a three-dimensional character filled with so much love, hate and worry. I was quite pleased to see the SAG Nominating Committee reward her with a nod. Longtime character actor, Rob Morgan, continues to give performances that quietly demand bigger and more consequential roles…just as this one is. The amount of inner rage and frustration he must quell and carry in these surroundings is maybe the film’s most powerful lasting effect. And, the living illustration of his fear and frustration is so disgustingly (and honestly) put forth by Jonathon Banks, it will be hard to watch him in the future without seeing the hate in his eyes and in his voice for years to come. Both men deserve the highest recognition for the manner in which they focus this film so unerringly.

Rachel Morrison, the film’s cinematographer, somehow turns the bleakest, and yes, muddiest, surroundings in to a thing of beauty. Like “Loving” and “Hell or High Water”, the camera finds such beautiful imagery in empty spaces, that director Rees can simply let it linger for long periods of time. Alas, as we’ve had two or three of the best shot war films in the last year, the war scenes in “Mudbound” do suffer in comparison, but in no way detract from the beauty shown us throughout the rest of the picture.

Finally, a word or two about Tamar-kali’s sparse score. Interestingly, I was going to use the phrase “musical droning” to describe much of it, and then, when I pursued the actual recording of the score, I saw that a couple pieces are titled “drones”. This is in no way a negative. The score is as languid and sparse as the photography, and effectively stays out of the way of our emotional connection to the film,  never informing, simply supporting. And it’s quite lovely to listen to on its own. It reminded me of Mica Levi’s “Jackie” score, not in its musicality (Tamar-kali’s score is much more accessible), but in its ability to aurally match what our eyes experience. A relative newcomer to film composition, it is exciting to finally hear what a female composer, and a black woman at that, has to offer in a major motion picture…and to witness a woman break through the monopoly held by the fifteen to twenty men who own the current film-composing landscape. Much as I love the output of many of those men, it’s time for that to end, and kudos to Rees for championing the effort.

“Mudbound” is required viewing for many reasons. Required artistically because of its beauty, performances and depth of meaning. But, perhaps more importantly, because of the stunning and honest portrayal of the universal horror vets come home to, from all combat experience, white or black, North or South. It’s on Netflix. Turn off your phone, turn out the lights, get yourself situated, and stare at this world for a couple hours. Please.

Written on 12/23/2017

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