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Film Review: Mudbound

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The latest original film from Netflix creates a new benchmark for measuring streaming content.

Dee Rees is an upfront director. Her steady hand is all-but-visible in every frame of Mudbound. To attempt to name a more "directed" film this year would be a folly, as Rees does not leave anything to chance. Each structural move, every cinematic trick to tell the audience something, they all feel part of a careful, detailed plan of how to tell the story. 

However, the film has far more complexity in the characters it explores than the narrative itself. As synopses go, Mudbound's opening dynamic is simple enough: two families, one white and one black, are co-existing in World War Two-era Mississippi, grabbing pre-Civil Rights dynamics and thrusting them into the spotlight.

The contrast, then, is the key to the film's, and Rees', success. From the start, the two brothers at the head of the white McAllan family strike an obvious but freshly realised distinction, made new by Rees. Jamie, given a charismatic Southern magnetism by Garrett Hedlund, is the young bachelor defined by his romanticism; one is reminded by him of classic matinée idols, with their beautiful eyes and tussled looks. 

Jamie's brother Henry, however, is a bread-and-butter man. Unromantic, bound to tradition, far more willing to side with his racist father (played by a growling Jonathan Banks), his frustrating moral ignorance could only be done by Jason Clarke, another timeless face in a film full of them. Caught between the two is Carey Mulligan's Laura, a wife to Henry but a muse to Jamie. She is just as bound to tradition as Henry, attempting to be a dutiful wife even when she disagrees with him. At one point, she admits that making love to Henry is only fulfilling for her because it makes her feel "like a true wife". 

Where Rees really soars as a director is in the clash between the McAllans and the black Jackson family, working on their farm. When we first meet the Jacksons, the cinematography is suddenly lighter; shot subjects are viewed through spaces between other people in the frame, pinpointing the closer ties between those in the family. Handheld cameras take the reins, and cuts become more staggered, involving us more closely with the longer takes. Compare this with the sturdy, clean framing of the McAllans, and Rees' intent is clear as crystal.

From there, the depths Rees explores with these characters is phenomenal, though it feels more like an observer's diary than an emotionally-inclusive narrative as a result. Nevertheless, she brings out the dynamics between the players that we long for from their introductions.

The two concerned mothers in Mulligan and Mary J. Blige are beacons of sensitivity and worriment for their spouses, though the chemistry between Blige and onscreen-husband Rob Morgan makes for a lot more warmth than that of Mulligan's and Clarke's (certainly not a criticism, mind - this was by design). The damaged veterans, in a scorching double act from Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund, bring out some wonderful chamber sequences between the young actors, and some affecting imagery to boot.

My favourite facet of the entire film is Rob Morgan's withered Hap, at once speaking with a rumble that could shake the earth and a gentleness fit for taming a wild beast. In an earth-shattering performance, Hap gets to the core of a rich character, with help from some gorgeous montage work from Rees and cinematographer Rachel Morrison. Though each character has their own stream-of-consciousness narration sequence, set against some wonderfully impressionistic images, Morgan's is easily the tightest. The grit and thickness of a word like 'mudbound' is no better suited to any performance than Morgan's.

Mudbound is out now on Netflix.

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