Friday, January 12, 2018

Mudbound: Superb character study

Mudbound (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for dramatic intensity, disturbing violence, profanity and nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.12.18

This film likely hasn’t been on most folks’ radar, given its unconventional distribution.

That needs to change.

As their friendship develops, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, right) insists that Ronsel
(Jason Mitchell) ride alongside in the front of his truck, rather than — as local custom
demands — back in the bed. This "familiarity" will not go unnoticed.
Director/co-scripter Dee Rees’ compelling adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound boasts impeccable acting and a narrative too infrequently addressed these days: humble people just trying to get by. Rees’ film shares these sensibilities with classics such as the 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and the 1941 adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (both directed by John Ford).

The all-important distinction is that Jordan’s saga gets additional dramatic heft from its depiction of the wary, prickly dynamic that passed for “race relations” in the post-WWII Deep South. Recent films addressing issues of race — 12 Years a Slave, Selma and Birth of a Nation immediately spring to mind — have concentrated on momentous individuals and/or points in history; it’s refreshing to experience a much more intimate, carefully sculpted depiction of jes’ plain folks.

Some of whom, it must be noted, are capable of unspeakable behavior.

Rees and co-scripter Virgil Williams adopt Jordan’s alternating narrative voices while introducing us to two families: the McAllans and Jacksons, both struggling on a remote, hard-scrabble cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta. It’s the winter of 1946, with flashbacks filling in crucial pre-war details.

Monsoon-like rains occasionally turn the entire farm into a dispiriting swamp of mud.

We meet Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and his younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) as they dig a grave for their recently deceased father, trying to complete this task ahead of another impending storm. Subsequently easing the plain wooden coffin into the grave proves too much for the two men; Henry requests help from their tenant farmers, the Jacksons, as their wagon ambles along the nearby road.

This request elicits palpable tension; we’ve no idea why.

Answers emerge via lengthy flashbacks.

Years earlier, during happier times before the war, spinster schoolteacher Laura (Carey Mulligan) gratefully accepts Henry’s proposal of marriage. She’s far more of a catch than Henry ever expected; the flashier, more handsome and charming Jamie would seem to have been a better match. But although he’s clearly enchanted by Laura, Jamie — ever the loyal sibling — limits his attention to wishing the new couple well.

Besides which, Jamie is heading overseas, to serve the war effort as a bomber pilot.

Henry and Laura are blessed with two daughters, the family living in comfort in Memphis, Tenn. Henry then shatters this idyll by announcing the move to Mississippi, to fulfill his lifelong ambition of running a farm. The stunned Laura has no choice but to accompany him, now forced to live in a dilapidated shack with no electricity or indoor plumbing.

She’s ill-prepared for such a life; the day-to-day struggle quickly wears her to a nub.

Their family unit is augmented by Henry and Jamie’s father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), a viciously spiteful racist and generally nasty old coot who probably drowns kittens for amusement.

The farm comes with black sharecroppers: Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their many children, most notably their eldest, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell). The latter also is serving his country, as a sergeant in the 761st Tank Battalion, stationed in Germany under Gen. Patton’s command. Ronsel enjoys a degree of racial equality worlds removed from his experiences at home.

The war ends; Jamie and Ronsel return to their respective homes, the latter once again relegated to second-class, use-the-back-door-or-else status. Bitterness and wounded pride burn in Mitchell’s eyes.

Jamie is damaged, suffering from shell shock and PTSD; he takes solace in alcohol, his once-breezy insouciance and savoir faire a distant memory. Proximity brings Jamie and Ronsel together; they recognize, in each other, kindred spirits who’ve survived war’s charnel house.

Jamie insists on building a friendship, skin color be damned. Ronsel, no fool, responds warily. Gradually, tentatively, this nascent bond becomes the film’s heart and soul.

That’s no small thing, given the many other equally compelling relationships that fuel the storyline.

Blige and Morgan are similarly superb. The warmth that characterizes the bond between Florence and Hap is one of equals; they share in work, family and important decisions in a manner that emphasizes Laura’s isolation, in her home. Hap regularly leads a local church service; Florence watches over their children with the quietly protective embrace of a mother tiger.

Florence doesn’t talk much; when she does, every word counts. Blige augments her observations with impressive emotional heft, particuarly since her eyes often are concealed behind dark glasses. Florence and Hap know how to play the game; they’re deferential to Henry and his often ill-timed demands, while exchanging silent glances that speak volumes.

To his credit, Henry tries to make such appeals sound more like requests. But we understand — as do Hap and Florence — that his surface geniality would vanish at the slightest hint of “uppitiness.” Clarke depicts Henry as an uncomplicated man who expects — by virtue of his being a man, and white — unswerving obedience from his wife, children and tenant farmers. He’s by no means a villain; Clarke shades him as a guy who simply doesn’t question the way the world runs.

Banks’ Pappy is the villain: a walking nightmare, not to be crossed. Banks literally vibrates with seething, barely controlled rage. Worse yet, his eyes glow with a similarly frightening degree of crafty cunning.

Mulligan, frequently cast into glamorous roles by virtue of her cute-as-a-button looks, vanishes utterly into her portrayal of Laura. She sags visibly, much of her dialog seeming to emerge only with great effort, as if she barely has the strength for each syllable. Mulligan’s performance is heartbreaking in the same manner as Mitchell’s handling of Ronsel: Both are trapped, by convention, in “roles” guaranteed to beat them down every minute of every day.

But whereas Laura has all but abandoned the struggle, Ronsel remains quietly defiant. Mitchell imbues this young man with levels of pride, dignity and poise — and a sparkle of nobility in his eyes — that make us grieve. We know, all too well, the limitations destined to crush him.

Much the way Jamie and Ronsel forge a friendship, Laura and Florence come to an understanding. Theirs is mostly unspoken, and frequently heartbreaking: the shared bond of two women who realize that they’ve no choice but to suffer ... and endure.

Rachel Morrison’s cinematography emphasizes the earth tones and bleakness of this harsh environment. At no time do she and Rees attempt to depict this agrarian setting in an attractive light; it’s grim, foreboding and gloomy. The lighting often feels like a murky dawn or dusk, even at high noon.

Rees frequently pauses the action, shifting to a parallel narrative while smoothing the way via brief voice-over narration. We get a sense that all these characters are recalling these events from a remove of time and distance: perhaps being interviewed, individually, for some collective memoir. Unlike the often clumsy off-camera narration that denotes lazy or uncertain direction, Rees employs it deftly; it works.

The story’s underlying anxiety is unsettling throughout, and builds gradually to the horrific climax that we sense must be coming ... at which point, we understand the prologue’s palpable tension.

The script isn’t perfect. Lucy Faust appears memorably but far too briefly as Vera Atwood, a white neighbor whose plight is even more dire than what Henry and Laura face; events revolving around Vera and her husband Carl demand more time and attention.

And despite the care and fidelity with which Rees and Williams have adapted Jordan’s novel, the filmmakers indulge in a fairy tale postscript that definitely isn’t in the book, and which feels wholly out of place. It’s the only time Rees resorts to shameless sentiment, and she should have resisted the temptation.

Otherwise, Mudbound stands as one of the recently departed year’s best dramas ... but you won’t find it at any local movie theaters. Aside from brief runs on both coasts, to qualify for Academy Award consideration, this film is available only via Netflix streaming.

And is well worth the subscription fee (which, let’s face it, is significantly less than the price of several movie tickets).

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