I stumbled across this film Mudbound on Netflix the other day and was surprised to learn that it had been nominated for a number of Academy Awards. Now, I don’t really watch the Oscars any more, as they have a tendency to get things blasphemously wrong, but nevertheless I have usually at least heard some buzz about films that garner multiple nominations. So what was the deal with Mudbound? How did it fly under my radar like that?
This post-WW2 period drama is set in the Deep South, and it deals with weighty issues like systemic racism, PTSD, passionless marriage and the crushing burden of being responsible for your family’s well-being. The distribution rights for the film were gobbled up by Netflix, I assume at a very high premium, so it never really saw a theatrical run. And Netflix targets its advertising based on your viewing history, so I suppose the fact that I have re-watched Nacho Libre 17 times was all the algorithm needed to know to decide I was unworthy of high art like this.
In any event, I am a latecomer to Mudbound, which currently has a 96% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 171 reviews, so clearly Netflix believes those people have more refined taste in cinema than I do. The movie is pretty classic Southern tropes: a white land-owning family with racist ass roots comes into conflict with the black tenant farmers working their land. It is novelistic in its sprawling scope and cast of characters, which is understandable since it is based on a popular 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan.
I loved the opening act of this film. It is beautifully shot, establishing a visceral connection between the land and the people who work it and own it and the complex relationships that are forged in it. The film is called Mudbound, and the visual look strives to do justice to that name, making you feel the bigness of the earth and the sky, and the roots than run deep. It is very good at building its world in the Mississippi Delta, of taking you to that place and letting you breathe the air and the world of these characters. The scene of Pappy preaching in a half-finished church to his congregation, of dining in his modest house with his family, of Laura sitting on the porch watching her life waste away in the afterglow of the sunset as the fields sprawl out before her filled with dirt and dead things.
In that visual language the film sets up all of its central questions and puzzles and conflicts. We understand this is hard land, worked with sweat and blood to make a living. We understand the grave racial inequality that shoots through everything, but also that black family’s like Pappy’s are starting to acquire some of the means to push back, learning to read, yearning to own their own piece of land and not just share-crop, starting to find avenues to make life better for the next generation. We see this white family in decline, in classic Faulknerian fashion, reduced to a shadow of its former status and lashing out wherever it can at the weakest people who can’t fight back. All of these deep and complex issues shine through, all the baggage, all the history, you could feel it almost seeping out of the mud itself.
But ultimately I didn’t really like where the plot went, focusing on a pair of veterans and their shared bonding over past trauma, culminating in a scene of horrific violence. There was something about it and how it resolved all the threads that just didn’t feel satisfying. It’s hard to say exactly what, but I guess the scope of the narrative stays fairly small and personal, when the setting is begging for something more epic. But that is a small complaint, quite nitpicky really, and I feel like a bit of an asshole for even feeling that way about this movie. I guess that epic about agrarian conflict and land use which no one but me will enjoy is still out there, waiting to be made.