Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, February 24, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Mudbound (2017)

As far as award season narratives go, 2018 has defied one or two. Maybe the Academy actually is changing. One of presuppositions was that the Oscars hate to see movies distributed via digital streaming. “Mudbound,” a critically acclaimed Netflix production, was widely expected to be snubbed. Instead, the film scored four nominations, at least one in the bigger category of Best Supporting Actress. Though “Mudbound” seems unlikely to walk away with any Oscars at the start of next month, the fact that it got nominated at all is pretty surprising. Maybe that talk about bringing younger people into the voting body actually did amount to something.

“Mudbound” is the story of two families, both living in 1940s Mississippi. The white McAllan family – Henry has recently married Laura, the two quickly gaining two daughters – are promised a house in a nice part of town. It's a scam, the building already being promised to someone else. Instead, they end up moving into a dilapidated, small home in a mud field. Living on the same property is the black Jackson family. Conflict soon arises, mostly thanks to Henry's deeply racist father. As World War II begins, Henry's brother Jamie and the oldest Jackson son, Ronsel, are deployed to Europe. Upon returning home, the two men form a friendship. This causes the racial tension in the town to boil over.

“Mudbound” is a melodrama, full of high emotion and socially conscious issues. The film is based on a novel by Hilary Jordan and feels fittingly novel-like. The exact amount of time the story occupies is never specified but considering it begins before World War II and ends sometime well after it, I'd say “Mudbound” covers about a  decade of history. Lots of stuff happens in that time. And not all of it is compelling. A plot point about a neighbor of the McAllan family murdering her husband seems especially extraneous. A subplot about Laura having romantic feelings for her brother-in-law is only occasionally mentioned and fizzles out before the end. The film frequently shifts narrators, several different members of both families gaining voice-overs. In a book, when divided by chapters, this is probably fine. In a movie, the constant change of perspective is disorientating.

The most compelling aspect of the film doesn't even emerge until about an hour into the movie. As a soldier on the battle front in World War II, Ronsel is treated no differently than anyone else. He takes orders, he fights for his country, he watches his friends die, he falls in love with a white German woman. When he returns home to Mississippi, he can't even walk through a grocery store door without being harassed and referred to as a slur. The only person who seems to understand Ronsel is Jamie. The two relate as veterans, as Jamie's PTSD is slowly leading him towards alcoholism. That the idea of a black man and a white man just being friends was enough to steer up racial intolerance in the 1940s south is disheartening. But likely, and sadly, true to life. “Mudbound” works best when focusing on Ronsel and Jamie's friendship and the struggles they face.

I'm tempted to call “Mudbound's” approach to social issues heavy-handed. Jonathan Banks plays Henry's father, probably one of the ugliest and most disgusting fictional racist I've seen recently. He's such an asshole that he even mocks his own son, a clearly shell-shocked war vet, for not being enough of a man. Yet people like this doubtlessly existed. Somehow more insidious is Jason Clarke's Henry. He's not outwardly racist to his black neighbors yet he willingly supports the prejudice of the day. “Mudbound's” gritty southern atmosphere, which mostly exists thanks to the washed-out and grimy cinematography, peaks with a bracing climax. Yes, the Klu Klux Klan inevitably puts in an appearance, the film's racial tension exploding towards intense violence.

“Mudbound” didn't draw me in. That's just the way it is sometimes. While the performances are generally strong, it seems many of the film's more interesting characters – Carey Mulligan as a put-upon wife – are pushed increasingly towards the story's margins. The film frequently struck me as a compromised adaptation, trying to squeeze a novel's content into a movie's run time, keeping some elements but forced to cut other, clarifying moments. Or maybe the book is just like this too. I don't know, I haven't read it. It doesn't surprise that “Mudbound” would find praise and raves. Personally, it just didn't work for me. [5/10]

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