Netflix has been inching closer and closer to the Oscars with its original films every year. Last year, it even won a category, Best Documentary Short, with the film White Helmets. Thanks to a limited theatrical release this weekend, this year will be the first year where they have a feature film in play, thus being eligible in all the major categories. That film is Mudbound. Mudbound certainly isn’t the best film I’ve seen this year; it’s not even the best film I’ve seen this weekend (Wonder takes that prize.) But is it good enough to be an Oscar contender? Most definitely.
Mudbound is based off the 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, her first published novel, which was met with much success. Mudbound tells the story of two families living in Mississippi, during and immediately after World War II. The McAllen’s, Henry and Laura, are a white family, living with their children and Henry’s racist father, Pappy. The Jackson’s, Hap and Florence, are a black family, living with their children, including their oldest son Ronsel. During the film, we are told a series of connecting stories of the two families’ relationship as neighbors, including the struggles Ronsel and Henry’s brother Jamie go through after returning from war.
Writer/director Dee Rees penned the screenplay for the film, working off an adaptation from Virgil Williams. Rees is a fairly new filmmaker, with a couple Emmy nominations for her TV movie Bessie. In Mudbound, it is the writing that is most easily noticeable, for better or worse. Faithful readers of the novel will be met with some dismay at Rees’ decision to change the ending, but that isn’t the only element of the film where the writing gets in the way. Mudbound is structured like a novel, not like a film. There are scenes and side-stories which prove to be nearly irrelevant in the final scope of the film, either because they don’t have relevance in the first place, or because the film simply doesn’t spend enough time on them to justify it. The result is that the film feels like it often gets sidetracked, when we’d rather just stick to the main story.
This fact, however, also serves as a benefit to the film. Perhaps the best element of this movie, thanks to some brilliant directing from Dee Rees, is that it tells the story from six different perspectives almost flawlessly. There is not a single protagonist in this film, but rather six, each getting worthy screentime and focus. Rees accomplishes this in part through narration, pulling directly from the brilliant and poetic words of author Hillary Jordan. Rees’ patient directing, working with editor Mako Kamitsuna and cinematographer Rachel Morrison, makes these thoughtful narration scenes the single most powerful elements of the movie. But it wasn’t just Rees, Kamitsuna, and Morrison at work. There was also some brilliant casting done by Billy Hopkins and Ashley Ingram.
Mary J. Blige is getting a lot of attention for her breakthrough acing performance in this movie, but I feel the most celebration should be directed toward Rob Morgan. Morgan’s narration scene is easily the most memorable in the film, thanks in part to the words spoken, but mostly how they were spoken. Morgan’s deep, gravelly voice is one that is sure to make any words more memorable, but here the effect is especially profound. Morgan’s performance extended far beyond his voice, however, giving what was, in my opinion, the best performance in a film full of outstanding performances.
Carey Mulligan is also a standout in the film. Mulligan is being billed as the lead for awards purposes, despite her character receiving some of the least focus in the main, six-person cast. Whatever role you place her in, Mulligan’s performance here is outstanding. Similarly great work also comes from Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, and Jason Clarke, composing a simply outstanding ensemble. Also, the only reason I haven’t mentioned Jonathan Banks yet is because his performance is so effective in making his character is so despicable, I’m morally reluctant to give it any praise.
In every cinematic way, Mudbound is an outstanding movie. It’s meaningfully and beautifully shot by Morrison, masterfully edited by Kamitsuna, brilliantly acted by the entire cast, and Dee Rees does some outstanding work in the director’s chair. The effectiveness with which Rees composes the moment of realization for the audience in the final scene is emotional, painful, and incredibly powerful. Narratively, the film’s plot structure does feel distracting, simply because it isn’t a very well-adapted screenplay. Frankly, though, this isn’t enough to hinder Mudbound from being a fantastic movie.
Netflix, I think you’ve finally done it. First They Killed My Father and The Meyerowitz Stories were both outstanding films with several fantastic elements, but Mudbound is simply on a different caliber. We’ll see you at the Oscars.
I give Mudbound an 8.5/10.