Thursday, November 23, 2017

Review: "Mudbound" is a Powerful Look Into America's Uncomfortable Past

Scene from Mudbound

With one perfect opening, director Dee Rees encapsulates the themes that Mubound will explore over the next two hours. The image of diggers coming across the resting grounds of a slave. This film may be set during World War II, but Rees is clearly interested in digging up a painful aspect of American history, and one that has arguably not gone away. This is a sweeping film about two soldiers who return from war only to discover that what separates them is ethnicity. While there have been countless period pieces on race relations, few have managed to capture an intensity and emotional understanding quite like Rees, who finds power in symbolism and in the tragic moments that connect and isolate us from one another. It's a beautiful period piece, and one that is likely to resonate as one of the first major Netflix movies worth taking seriously. 

The story centers around one farm in Mississippi, where the hierarchy is pretty familiar. There's a white family that owns the farm, and there's the black men that work them. Each of the characters have various degrees of racism in their DNA, with the older generation embodying the worst tendencies. Jonathan Banks' Pappy McAllan embodies the curmudgeon who spouts epithets and is pro-segregation. His intimidating presence makes it easy to see why his family bends to his will. His son Henry (Jason Clarke) is a tragic figure who - while not intentionally racist - embodies a bygone era where blacks did the work. Whenever he needs help, he looks for people passing by and asks innocently. Mudbound presupposes that this is how things have been, and how things will be for the rest of time. The story juxtaposes with the black family who works the farm, finding parallels of nobility among their own preconceived notions of the hierarchy they've been thrust into. 

What's probably the most powerful element of the film is the use of World War II. While there have been hundreds of war movies that depict the war as riveting, this is one that uses it to convey a stronger, deeper divide that the average Civil Rights drama cannot. Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) were air force pilots with traumatic experiences to their credit. As flashbacks of the horror sprint through the movie, they return home with nobody to turn to. These two men, one black and one white, are war veterans - yet the tragedy has yet to truly happen. War was tough, but racism is the ultimate divide. Their bonding creates a powerful, uncomfortable third act where the story returns to its sad truths. It's a narrative about how America is divided among itself, and Rees has found an inventive angle to make the message stick. It never panders or uses overt sentimentality to convey its themes. Instead, it uses humanity as the driving force to understand why people behave the way they do around each other.

Mudbound may be one of the most powerful explorations of racism and America's painful history since 12 Years a Slave. It constructs the narrative around two perspectives that should seem at odds with each other. Instead, it finds what makes these two men human. It helps that Hedlund and Mitchell deliver great performances that perfectly show the slow and growing bond between these two shell shocked men. Rees also makes a wonderful atmosphere full of beautiful cinematography and soundtrack use that conveys a romantic south, but also one that's fraught with tension. She continues to prove why she's an up and coming director worthy of attention. She brings an immediacy to Mudbound without relying on saccharine and obvious nods to 21st century conflicts. Instead, it's about the ideas of why people are racist, and why that is very unfortunate. Few films have captured an understanding this strong simply by showing characters who are on varying degrees of the spectrum. Some are racist, others only partially, but the film also suggests that understanding is possible - which is its most incredible gift.

Mudbound continues an impressive year for Netflix with one of their first films worthy of higher praise, and maybe even some Oscar attention. While it may seem like an issues movie that will hit the familiar beats, it manages to find a deeper honesty to why these issues matter. It may be a tough movie to watch, but it's a period piece that has managed to find new material in the old stories that everyone knows. Dee Rees puts her all into this movie, and the results are staggering. It as a dissertation on an uncomfortable and prescient issue. Why are people racist? Why can't people learn to understand? By the end, she conveys a strong argument for why change needs to happen, but why those needing change aren't always hopeless. Mudbound is one of the year's best movies, and one of the best explorations of America's history that have been seen in quite some time. 

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