Toronto 2017: Dee Rees’s Mudbound

On Film / The Daily — Sep 7, 2017

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.’”

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