• [The Daily] Toronto 2017: Dee Rees’s Mudbound

    By David Hudson


    When Dee Rees’s Mudbound premiered at Sundance, I gathered a first round of reviews, beginning with Justin Chang’s for the Los Angeles Times: “Adapted from Hillary Jordan’s novel, Mudbound sketches a vivid, dirt-under-the-nails panorama of 1940s Mississippi farm country, centered on the tightly bound interactions between a white couple, the McAllans (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan), and the Jacksons, a family of black sharecroppers (played by actors including Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan and Jason Mitchell) who work on their farmland. Rees intersperses the voice-overs of multiple characters throughout, a technique that takes some getting used to. But it also pays off with a richly nuanced understanding of the sheer pervasiveness and variety of racist attitudes in the Jim Crow era.”

    Since January, Critics Round Up has been tracking reviews, and now, with Mudbound slated to screen as a Gala Presentation in Toronto before moving on to the New York Film Festival, it’s prominently featured in the new issue of Film Comment. Ashley Clark argues that Mudbound “represents a significant leap in scope and scale from the determinedly low-key Pariah [2011] and the glossy, narratively straightforward Bessie [2015]. . . . Clocking in at a meaty 134 minutes, Mudbound is thrillingly ambitious and complex, and features daring experimental flourishes, including a multicharacter narration that, while initially a touch overbearing, ultimately lends the film an apposite epistolary quality—repressed characters who are physically or emotionally adrift from their families are given voice, to powerful dramatic effect.”

    And Clark, Eric Hynes and FC digital producer Violet Lucca discuss Mudbound on the latest Film Comment Podcast (49’15”).

    For all the enthusiasm for the film at Film Comment, C.J. Prin, writing for Cinema Scope, has a few reservations: “It’s an ambitious and admirable effort at a message of unity by Rees, but the structural juggling act spreads things too thin, forcing overlapping storylines into small, narratively pat chunks. The easy, familiar narrative beats, culminating in a melodramatic and predictable conclusion (one that loses its impact by Rees using the tired device of opening her film with a flash-forward), conflict with the attempt to cover such complex thematic ground. Much like its characters’ inability to break free from the racial and social barriers surrounding them, Mudbound finds itself unable to transcend its own conventions.”

    Update, 9/8: At Slant, Jake Cole suggests that “if the specter of the Civil War inevitably hangs over the story, the more pressing conflict is World War II, which sees Henry’s brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), and Hap’s son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), sent to Europe. There are only a few combat scenes in Mudbound, but they're bracingly constructed . . . As striking as Mudbound’s combat scenes are, they largely exist as setup for the postwar-set second half of the film, which scrutinizes the way that the atrocities witnessed in Europe laid bare the unsustainable hypocrisy in America’s own bigoted divisions.”

    Update, 9/17: “Through Ronsel and Jamie's friendship, Mudbound explores the ways that racism is a system that channels insecurity and resentment, specifically that of post-war masculinity in crisis,” writes Christopher Machell for CineVue. “This crisis of masculinity is also a crisis of modernity, with Ronsel dreaming of returning to a renewed, hopeful Germany, while Jamie plans on moving out West to the hyper-modern Los Angeles. . . Though Mudbound represent a period of injustice consigned to history, its examination of a toxic, racist masculinity stuck in the past could hardly be more relevant today.”

    Update, 9/19: “Rees is breaking all the rules,” declares April Wolfe in the LA Weekly. “In film school, they tell you, ‘No voiceovers,’ yet this film . . . is filthy with them. They tell you, ‘Play it safe until you’re more experienced,’ yet Mudbound is a sprawling epic. They say, ‘Never make a period piece because the budget will be prohibitive,’ yet the setting here spans multiple years and continents in the 1940s. With Mudbound, Rees proves the truest rule of all: That talent and vision make all lesser rules negotiable.”

    Updates, 10/23: The New York TimesA. O. Scott finds Mudbound to be “unflinching and unsentimental in its dissection of white supremacy. Unlike most Hollywood movies, it regards racism less as a matter of personal wickedness—though the white characters range from grotesquely bigoted to mostly decent—than as a system of economic plunder and social domination. At the same time, Ms. Rees, aided by a superb cast . . . rejuvenates an old Hollywood tradition of ethically rigorous, dramatically vigorous moviemaking. Sidney Lumet and Elia Kazan would recognize her as a kindred spirit.”

    “Despite the infrastructure set in motion centuries ago to keep only whites in positions of power, Mudbound elegantly depicts how such ingrained racism only serves to aid whites in digging our own graves,” writes Michael Koresky at Reverse Shot. “Rees takes great pains to mostly represent these harsh themes through gesture and incident rather than having her characters speak them, allowing centuries of in-the-marrow American racism to simply be the unspoken reality of these people, and therefore a reality not to be eradicated or reckoned with by film’s end but rather an unrelenting force that shapes and destroys all.”

    “For a film that crosses state lines and journeys to the western front, Rees’s camera remains tight on her characters, avoiding obvious vista shots,” notes Benedict Seal at Vague Visages. “It rings of budgetary compromise, but, thanks to her commitment, makes for an effective stylistic choice.”

    Back in January, as Sundance “wound down, Netflix came in with an offer of $12.5m for Mudbound,” notes Tim Lewis in a profile of Rees for the Guardian. “It was more than they needed to pay, they knew that, but Ted Sarandos, the company’s chief content officer, felt the film had a universality and epic scale other distributors had missed. And it is starting to look like a smart bet.” Says Rees: “[Hollywood] used to take risks, it used to be about discovery and now it’s about profit, it’s about foreign sales value, so I think Netflix are disrupters and maybe they will shake up the system and get the studios back to making original interesting things. Back to discovering new actors and not just hiring the same three actors over and over again. This could have repercussions; it will show that sometimes art wins and that would be great if that happens.”

    Rees was the closing keynote conversation at this year’s Film Independent Forum, and Dino-Ray Ramos reports on the talk for Deadline. “‘I care about subtext,’ said Rees. ‘If you get that right, the text will flow.’”

    For the Playlist, Jordan Ruimy talks with Rees “about what led her to this film,” Mudbound, “the parallels to today’s America and her future as a filmmaker.”

    Update, 11/3: For the New York Times, Cara Buckley talks with Rees, Mary J. Blige, Carey Mulligan, and Garrett Hedlund.

    Updates, 11/11: Eliza Berman gets Rees and her former teacher and mentor, Spike Lee, for a conversation for Time. Here’s Rees at one point: “I grew up in 1980s Nashville, next to a Klan member. My dad would tell me, ‘So-and-so’s a Grand Dragon.’ He was a cop, and that was the only thing we think made them leave us alone. They would have a Confederate flag as their curtain. Our next-door neighbor was a Klan member. I would play with their granddaughter. She could come to my house and play on my swing set, but I was never allowed to go to her house and play on her swing set. I was called ‘nigger.’ Racism never disappeared for me. It’s not this surprising new thing. At Sundance, I overheard some guy saying, ‘The movie’s good. The Klan scene was over the top, though.’ I think now, post-Charlottesville, he’ll say, ‘The Klan scene’s not over the top.’”

    Rolling Stone’s David Fear talks with Jason Mitchell: “Having worked with Rees, The Chi’s showrunner Lena Waithe and Detroit’s Kathyrn Bigelow, he says he wants to keep doing more projects with female filmmakers. ‘They have more finesse on set,’ Mitchell muses, ‘especially Big Kat, which I what I called [Bigelow]. Even though Dee is more run-and-gun, you know, it’s the same thing. They seem to get more done with less words, I’ve noticed.’”

    Update, 11/15: “Southern Gothic love triangle, coming-home drama, portrait of the segregation era in all its ugliness—whole movies could be pulled from Mudbound’s tangled tapestry,” writes the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd. “Rees hurtles these warring kin fatalistically forward, to a climax that’s harrowing not just for the awfulness of its violence, but for what it says about the American character: Circling back to its first scene, Mudbound suggests spinning wheels, cycles of abuse, and inequality even in tragedy. If the endgame is tough to bear, the getting there is rarely less than involving, thanks to the sensitivity of Rees’ staging. She’s made an economical epic with an intimate modern soul.”

    Updates, 11/16: “What stays with you are everyday moments,” writes A. O. Scott in the New York Times, “and the graceful performances that bring them to life. The way those instances of ordinary human tenderness and decency stand out is proof of the film’s achievement, which is to lay bare a world in which cruelty is normal and injustice seems as implacable as the weather.”

    Mudbound could have easily turned out as a kind of dusty, respectable period drama that looks important while advancing nothing, but it exceeds expectations with every new layer,” writes Emily Yoshida for Vulture. “It’s the kind of movie that feels like it’s based on a novel in the best way; Rees and Virgil Williams’s deft scripting and sense of pace manage to cram the emotional payoff of an entire season of television into two hours without feeling rushed or superficial. After I saw the film earlier this year at Sundance, and then heard the news that it was being picked up by Netflix, it seemed a shame to me that most people would experience a film so big feeling on the small screen. But rewatching it on my own small screen for this review, I found it had lost none of its can’t-put-it-down magnetism; its two hours and fourteen minutes feel like a modest binge-watch.”

    “Rees masterfully executes her character study, filling the frame with visuals as big and powerful as the emotions she draws from her superb cast,” writes Odie Henderson at RogerEbert.com. “This is melodrama of the highest order, which is a compliment, for melodrama is not a bad thing. It is part of some of the greatest works of art, and in the right hands, it can elicit an ennui-shattering response from the audience.”

    Mudbound is staggeringly good,” writes Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey. “It’s lyrical and evocative, yet dread-filled and terrifying; much of the latter feeling is provided by Tamar-Kali’s moody score (rhythmic and involving, simple yet sweeping) and Rachel Morrison’s bravura cinematography, which recalls the vivid and slightly oversaturated look of early Technicolor. She usually shoots in close, but her camera occasionally goes wide, emphasizing the big blue sky above these characters. It’s so open, but day after day and year after year, it traps and crushes them.”

    “There’s a rich, arterial force in this film’s storytelling,” finds the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.Mudbound is absorbing: the language, performance and direction all have real sinew.”

    Updates, 11/17: Richard Brody’s got a spoiler right at the top of his piece on the film for the New Yorker, and further in writes that “what weighs down the depiction of the impassioned events of Mudbound is their merely illustrative function. Strangely, the movie plays like an extended, dully methodical exposition that serves solely to reach its shattering climax.”

    But for Andrew Lapin at NPR, “it’s a minor miracle that, as sprawling as the film gets, it never feels burdened.”

    Jada Yuan interviews Rees for Vulture and Kaleem Aftab talks with Carey Mulligan for Screen.

    Updates, 11/18: “Ensemble casts are the ghost ships of awards season, group feats of skill and subtlety that pass almost unnoticed on the rolling, choppy seas of Oscar hype,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “All moviegoers, critics included, tend to zoom in on individual performers—it’s natural to find yourself drawn to just one face, one distinctive way of moving or talking. But watching a movie in which all the players are perfectly in concert is its own special pleasure, and that’s the case with Dee Rees’s Mudbound. Each actor here . . . is attuned to the specific gifts of the others. Together, they’re a reminder that actors’ key tools are the ability to listen and see, and not just react.”

    For Little White Lies, Sophie Monks Kaufman talks with Rees “about crafting a multi-perspective film out of history and how she prepares with actors.”

    Updates, 11/19: “To a degree that is both formally impressive and politically astute, Rees and her co-writer, Virgil Williams, have largely retained the symphonic, almost Faulknerian structure of multiple narrators that governed Jordan’s story,” writes Justin Chang. “The radicalism of Mudbound thus lies in its inherently democratic sensibility, its humble, unapologetic insistence on granting its black and white characters the same moral and dramatic weight. In a film industry that has only begun to correct its default position of presenting black suffering almost exclusively through a white gaze, this is no small achievement.”

    Also in the Los Angeles Times, Tre'vell Anderson interviews Jason Mitchell and producer Charles D. King.

    “It’s a minor problem that the story almost itches to be spaced out into an actual series, rather than crammed into feature length,” finds Tim Robey. “Mulligan and Clarke are fine but not outstanding; Hedlund digs deeper, as Jamie sinks believably into a hard-drinking rut, isolated by PTSD and tragically attached to his brother’s wife. Blige, who has only taken a handful of bit parts to date, does a remarkable line in measured stoicism, and has some great moments of bottled-up glaring, giving silent voice to her character’s fury. Best of the lot, though, is Mitchell—a cast standout as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton—who makes of Ronsel a humble, happy-go-lucky hero who refuses to be a doormat, cordoning off a sense of self-respect even when the worst injustices of the era land on his porch.”

    Also in the Telegraph: Catherine Gee talks with Rees and members of the cast.

    “It’s a complicated, worthy film, a finely wrought drama that’s ultimately better at serving up a slice of the history at its center than it is at conjuring the kind of rich, vexed melodrama that this history deserves,” writes K. Austin Collins at the Ringer. “It’s compelling nonetheless.”

    “The shifting voices help to create interiority without relying on inelegant exposition, and allow Rees to refract broad themes like love, war, and racism through very specific points of view,” writes Simran Hans for the Observer. “In this sense, Mudbound is at once sweeping epic and granular character study.”

    Update, 11/29: IndieWire Filmmaker Toolkit host Chris O’Falt talks with Rees (31’51”).

    Updates, 12/9: In the Chicago Reader, Ben Sachs writes that “Mudbound is about more than American race relations; the film also considers the plight of southern farmers, both black and white, during World War II and how women helped maintain order on the farms. Yet the subjects of race and racially motivated violence enter into many of the scenes—the characters are defined first and foremost by their race, and the segregated social order determines how they interact with each other. It’s a sad movie about people who are (for the most part) unable to escape the force of social codes.”

    “Rees plays video games three or four hours a day, trying to crack their codes,” notes Tad Friend, who visits her on behalf of the New Yorker. “I like games because the wins aren’t clean, necessarily—there’s more than one way to do it,” she tells him. “Making a film is like a game. You can beat it, but you don’t know how you would have done it if you’d gone a different way.”

    Stephen Saito talks with cinematographer Rachel Morrison “about handling the challenges presented by multiple narratives and mercurial weather to make a most devastating epic, as well as filming in locations that once belonged to real tenant farmers and getting the film’s rich color palette.”

    Update, 12/14: For the Credits, Kelle Long talks with musician Tamar-kali “about portraying history truthfully on screen, giving a period film a contemporary sound, the effect music has on storytelling, and more.”

    Updates, 1/30: “The [Oscar] nominations Mudbound has received are definitely worth celebrating for both Netflix and those involved with the movie,” writes Angelica Jade Bastién at Vulture. “Yet the fact that the film was mostly left out of conversations around Best Picture and Best Director speaks to larger questions about this moment in film history. The Oscars have never been purely about merit, but Mudbound’s nominations still feel paltry for a film that taps the vein of such an important moment in American history, commenting both on the particulars of its time and on the current era, in which blackness is still under siege.”

    Dee Rees is Elvis Mitchell’s guest on The Treatment (29’40”).

    Toronto 2017 Index. For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

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