Given the stellar reviews of Mudbound, which was released in theaters and on Netflix last week, I wanted to love the movie—I really did. But after watching it, the movie left me feeling more emotionally distant than I would have thought possible, given that it was about a subject I usually find compelling.
That’s not saying there’s not a lot to like. There is. The acting was fine, a solid cast, including Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige(!), and Jonathan Banks (my favorite hit man, Mike Ehrmantraut of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) hit all the right beats. The cinematography was beautiful. It gave me a real sense of the desperation and the “violent” reality of farming in an unforgiving land, which in this case is southern Mississippi.
Mudbound, based on a novel by Hillary Jordan, is a story about two families, one white and one African-American, who live side by side on a farm that isn’t producing much, in the period spanning the years pre, during and post World War II. One son, from each family, goes off to fight in the war, while their families are left behind trying to keep their worlds from spinning apart.
Tension, which often comes in the form of conflict, is an essential ingredient in storytelling. Sometimes the tension comes through the characters and their actions, which forms the plot, but there are some stories where the tension is situational. A Jewish person navigating Nazi Germany, or an African-American throughout most of American history, but especially during slavery or in the Jim Crow south, will have the audience on the edge of their seat because if you’re savvy, you know what dangers exist. Mudbound had the existential tensions of its time but the plot and characters also contribute, leading to horrifying climax.
I think the reason that I didn’t love the movie is because given all the characters, I was never able to invest in a single person’s arc or journey. Six of the main characters provide a voice over to give us some depth to their struggle, but it felt unsatisfying. I think that there are two things that could have remedied this for me. One is to keep it as a two hour movie but tighten the focus to the relationship between two of the characters, rather than all six. I found the two soldiers who returned home, the mom trying to keep her dignity, while keeping her family safe, or the young wife who is more emotionally connected to her brother-in-law than her husband, would have been poignant stories in themselves. The other solution, which I would have really loved, would have been to turn the movie into a six or eight part series where each character could be developed and have time to grow, which could have been doable on Netflix.
Maybe it’s an issue of managing my expectations. I came in ready to fall in love but while I didn’t, I did fall “in like.” I have a healthy respect for what the director Dee Rees was able to accomplish, but I wonder if the impact of the movie would have been greater if it was made back in 2009, shortly after the release of the book rather than now?