by Alistair Ryder
Is Oscar bait well and truly dead? Last year saw La La Land’s Best Picture trophy symbolically snatched from its hands moments after being announced as the winner by Moonlight; a throwback tribute to classic movie musicals and Hollywood glamour (a genre the Academy famously loves to award) being instantly trumped by a drama that won based on its filmmaking credentials alone.
Stereotypically Oscar-baiting films haven’t resurfaced this year, either; at the time of writing, the front runners for the Best Picture prize are a gay romance set in Northern Italy, a black comedy about police brutality and a gothic melodrama about a mute woman falling in love with a merman.
Mudbound; dir: Dee Rees; USA 2017, 134 mins. Our rating: ★★★/5
However, that doesn’t mean that distinctly “prestige” pictures aren’t still gunning for those golden statuettes. Enter Dee Rees’ Mudbound, based on Hillary Jordan’s award winning 2008 novel, a well-made, well-meaning effort that condenses the horrors of mid 20th racism and post-WWII PTSD in to a boldly sentimental finished product that doesn’t fully grapple with the weighty themes of its source material.
Rees may have made an effective transition from low budget indie drama to mid-budget prestige picture, but make no mistake, the grit of her 2011 debut Pariah has been replaced by over-sentimentality – climaxing with the use of a cheesy Mary J Blige ballad over the closing credits.
Mudbound tells the story of two families, one white family and one African American family, during the 1940’s in Mississippi. The McAllan clan, led by patriarch Henry (Jason Clarke) have made the snap decision to move to a farm, after Henry confessed his lifelong dream to own one. His wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) isn’t too pleased with this unexpected arrangement, especially because her family will now be living his bad tempered racist father (Jonathan Banks). After finding out the sale of farmland was a mere ruse conning them out of money, they move elsewhere on the plot- becoming neighbours to the Jackson family.
Relations between both families are civil, with the Jacksons helping out by working on the McAllan’s property. But this civility comes crashing down when members of each family return from war and start a friendship that neither family can truly accept; Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the Jackson’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) bond over their wartime memories. While Jamie struggles to readjust to civilian life, Ronsel has the harder time of the two- a refusal to be accepted by society despite being a known war hero.
The relationship between Jamie and Ronsel is where the film really comes in to its own. The entire narrative is focused on the turmoils of both men and their families, but their blossoming friendship deserves to be a buddy movie in its own right- every scene they spend together is a momentary cathartic release from the horrors depicted elsewhere. However, the pair don’t properly meet until approximately halfway through the film’s two hour-plus running time; outside of the relationship between these two men, the film’s aim to explore societal context of the 40’s US south is seldom as thorough as it deserves to be. We are shown cartoonish, overblown sentiments of racism, yet never fully explore the more interesting theme of the institutional racism that would lead to a war hero becoming treated worse in his own country than on the battlefield.
Outside of this narrative, issues of race are barely touched upon- Rees’ film often seems to be rushing through a story that spans multiple years, largely so an elaborate novelistic narrative can remain intact on the screen. Despite the extended running time, the film never drags, and it’s largely due to the fact the film (at least in its first hour) rarely settles, opting to hurtle through the years the younger family members aren’t spending at home. Like so many book adaptations that wind up on the big screen come awards season, I was left liking the film despite its noticeable flaws, but knew I would love the source material it was based upon more.
Mudbound takes an intimately epic novel and transforms it into an unsubtle, awards courting drama. The cast deliver uniformly great performances, but the film itself never delves as deep as I would have liked into their struggles, or the harsh social backdrop of the period.
The film may be well-intentioned, but it’s a disappointment; over-simplifying many elements of the story to be more palatable for mainstream audiences. Mudbound may well be forgotten about by the time this year’s awards season is over and done with.
Mudbound will be available to watch on Netflix and in selected cinemas from Friday November 24, 2017.