Starring: Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund, Carey Mulligan
Director: Dee Rees
Running Time: 134 mins
Mudbound is an American film about two men, one white and one black, who return home from fighting in Europe at the end of the Second World War, and encounter racism in a small rural community.
If there were ever a film that sums up the phrase ‘mixed bag’, then Mudbound is surely it. Ranging from emotionally devastating and harrowing drama to downright tedious periods of nothingness, this is one of the most inconsistent films you’ll ever see, and although its highest points prove utterly enthralling and truly memorable, its lowest offer next to nothing in terms of riveting drama. Its performances are strong and its directing confident, but that doesn’t escape the fact that this film is just a real mixed bag.
Let’s start with the film’s opening act, which is one of the most boring and frustrating hours I’ve spent watching a film. Starting off with a confusing and poorly executed opening scene, the film really fails to pick itself up over the course of its whole first hour, doing little more than to establish some of the main characters and the hardships of the muddy, isolated rural community, things that could have surely been done just as effectively in a good ten minutes.
For the duration of the whole first act, it’s pretty difficult to tell what the end game of the movie actually is. For one, you’ve got the story of a young woman whose marriage allowed her to escape her dull family, and who also is deeply frustrated with the muddiness and poverty-stricken nature of her current life. Then there’s some detailing of the horrific levels of racism in 1940s Mississippi, with the family’s grandfather being the main example for some nasty remarks throughout. There’s also a young black man who goes off to war, who we occasionally check in with during his battles in Europe, while we also see the brother of the central white family flying in the Air Force during the war.
As you can tell by that very bungled description, the film’s first act is an absolute mess. There’s very little way to tell what the main story is, and what you should really be focusing on for the biggest emotional intrigue, and that, coupled with the fact that it moves at a deathly slow pace, makes it a very frustrating and extremely tedious first hour.
However, things really do pick up come the second act. Upon seeing the two men return to Mississippi from the war, the film’s central focus finally comes to the forefront, and we immediately get a very tense exchange between the racist grandfather and the African-American war veteran. That’s undoubtedly one of the film’s highest points, and sets up the atmosphere of deep racial tensions well, finally giving the film at least a continuing and consistent tension under the surface, something that was completely absent from its first act.
The second act then goes into looking at how different generations respond to the institutionalised racism, while also shedding light on how horrifically unjust some of the hardships suffered by so many hard-working African-Americans were at the time, which proves for an interesting, albeit never quite powerful watch. The film’s middle portion is a great insight into the time period, and holds your attention throughout, but it never quite manages to hit you hard enough as a film telling such a story should do.
And then comes the film’s final act, which is exceptional. For the final thirty minutes or so, the devastating reality of racism in the past is brought brutally into focus, and it makes for a deeply disturbing and uncomfortable but powerfully moving watch. With the film’s tension at its height, it doesn’t hold back in displaying some truly horrifying scenes, some of which are easily the most intense and powerful I have ever seen in a film dealing with the topic.
The final act is directed brilliantly, being frank and brutally realistic in its depiction of injustice, and moving along at a slow but tense pace to emphasise some truly horrible acts, all the while maintaining a strong dignity that allows the deeper, emotional side of the sequences to shine through too, all of which makes it simply astonishing to see.
It’s fair to say then, given the huge range of comments I have for this film, ranging from total boredom to transfixing and hard-hitting emotion, that Mudbound is a very inconsistent mixed bag, however there is one element to it that works well from start to finish: the performances.
The wide range of characters in the first act does make its story somewhat muddled, but each of the actors really shines in bringing their own character to life. Carey Mulligan is very strong and convincing as a young mother frustrated with her life in poverty, Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell are both charismatic young men, meaning that their relationship really shines when it’s on display, while Jonathan Banks is excellent as the terrifyingly racist old man, bringing a powerful tension into the film every time he walks into a room.
Overall, then, it’s pretty clear that Mudbound isn’t a resoundingly successful movie. At times an interesting insight into racism and injustice in the Deep South in the 40s, at others a tedious slog of randomly muddled drama and characters, and at others an astonishingly powerful, hard-hitting and truly memorable (dare I say it, even Oscar-worthy) drama, it’s a very inconsistent and overall frustrating film. However, with its strong performances all the way through and exceptional drama at points, it is a memorable watch, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.4 overall.