It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the BFI’s 61st London Film Festival (4-15 October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Milo Garner considers Dee Rees’ historical drama from the LFF Headline Gala programme.
Mudbound opens with a visual metaphor that informs its entirety. Two brothers, Henry and Jamie McAllen (Jason Clarke and Garret Hedlund) are digging a grave for their father, when they come upon chains, then skeletal remains. A slave’s grave, one observes. Just under the surface of America lies its terrible legacy. It’s one some might shy away from, but it will inevitably be unearthed.
The film, set around and during the Second World War, follows two families living on a farm in Mississippi: one black, one white. The latter is headed by newlyweds Henry and Laura (Carey Mulligan), who decides to move to the farmland to fulfil a dream of his. They settle on the land and quickly assert themselves as landowners. Henry visits the black family – the Jacksons – now under his employ, and softly demands that they help him unpack. This will be a theme throughout the film – Henry’s loud knock on the door signalling a request that dare not be denied. Henry isn’t an ‘active’ racist, as it might be termed, but he has behind him the coercion of white America, and will happily stand by as his very racist father (Jonathan Banks) splutters demeaning and insulting language. He represents the typical man of his position – rarely an active aggressor but guilty all the same. Director Dee Rees realizes this power balance excellently, backed by Clarke’s subtle performance – he isn’t played as a villain, but his leanings are clear enough.
Hap (Rob Morgan) is the head of the Jacksons and, presumably due to his age, is wary of disobeying even unreasonable demands by his white employers. He attempts to guide his family towards peace with the McAllens, and for much of the first half of the film largely succeeds. Betraying its literary roots, the story has a lot of disposable subplots and characters introduced who, while developing the core players, have little to add to the essence of the film. In fact, this essence only becomes clear halfway through, after Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie have both returned from the Second World War. On their return they are changed men. Admittedly we didn’t know them (especially Ronsel) much before the war or earlier in the film, but the rest of the narrative is theirs. Ronsel, having tasted a hint of equality overseas, is no longer willing to supplicate himself to the powers that be. This encapsulates a historical phenomenon of the time that pushed the civil rights movement, and is excellently portrayed here. Jamie has a similar experience, his life being saved by a black fighter pilot, resulting in him swearing he’ll do some good as a result.
This progresses into an authentic friendship between the two. Rather than the two immediately bonding (as soldiers might), there is a fair level of reticence, especially (and naturally) on the part of Ronsel. Overcoming the hard-set racial distrust is no easy thing, even in this context. From here on the film considers their friendship in regards to the precarious balance between the two families of the farm, and an attempt to bridge the gap is ultimately what ensures the tragedy rumbling under the surface will come to the fore. Given the quality of this second half the aimlessness of the first is only made clearer – much of the it could be cut while retaining most of the film’s emotional strength, especially given that Jamie and Ronsel feature only occasionally in early scenes.
A further issue compounding this is the editing, which is initially a little unsure. Cutting between the two families, often without direct dramatic purpose, can be jarring enough, but it gets worse when the war is introduced. While intercutting drama both sides of the Atlantic might function on paper, it’s awkwardly realized here, especially given the lack of substance in the battle scenes. Seeing characters we don’t know too well caught up in context-free ‘war stuff’ is not particularly compelling, even if some events will be revisited later on. Luckily, however, the camerawork is a step above, with some wonderful pastoral imagery. An opportunity is lost in texture, however. The narration is not short on reminding the audience that anything and everything on the farm is mud-caked, but this is not emphasised in any particular way visually. Again, the literary roots of the film rear their head.
Mudbound’s third act follows the tragic trajectory to its natural conclusion, and although predictable it functions as an effective payoff nonetheless. Unfortunately the film fails to conclude on the scene that opened it, with a ‘studio ending’ type thing tacked on the final few minutes; fortunately, it isn’t destructive enough to undo what comes before. While an imbalanced and uneven affair, Dee Rees has still managed to create an intermittently strong and accessible film, whose qualities certainly outweigh its faults.
Mudbound premiered in the UK on the 5th of October at London Film Festival. Trailer below: