Saturday 2 December 2017

On demand: "Mudbound"

One might be surprised to hear that these generally bleak 135 minutes have been seized upon as an index of positive change, even hope, but then Mudbound holds out to the emergent writer-director Dee Rees - a black woman - the opportunity and funds to realise the kind of wide-roaming homesteader epic that only the thoroughly Caucasian likes of John Ford, Robert Redford and Ed Zwick have heretofore been permitted to make. That the film is something new can be seen from the reluctance to entirely romanticise its particular corner of the American tapestry (rural Mississippi, during and just after World War II) in the way films such as A River Runs Through It and Legends of the Fall have. The first sound we hear is that of a shovel pushing through dirt, and then there is the matter of that mud, which spills outwards from the title to flood both the screen and its begrimed characters' worldviews. (As one confesses, "I dreamt in brown.") This feels like a second Reconstruction - how to civilise a nation after years of conflict? - and it is hard, exhausting and dirty work: that shovel sets the tenor for a film that opens on one burial, and closes with two more.

In content, as in form, it is a film of diverse voices, the narration drawn from Hillary Jordan's novel a burden alternately carried by and shared among a half-dozen of those residing on this small patch of turf. For starters, there are the McAllan brothers, the dashing Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the foursquare Henry (Jason Clarke), plus the latter's wife Laura (Carey Mulligan); a short way down the track, around a bend broadly under-investigated in these types of movies, there reside the Jacksons, an African-American family, headed by Hap (Rob Morgan) and Florence (Mary J. Blige), whose eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) has just received his papers to serve in a tank division headed for Europe. There is a modicum of privilege evident on one side of the fence, not very much at all on the other, yet in the wake of an unsuccessful property deal, the McAllans are obliged to downsize and occupy a shack directly adjacent to the Jacksons' own: you'd call this a level playing field, were the ground not so furrowed and uneven, and those upon it not so obviously lacking the leisure time to play.

It's the ambition that first seizes us, ambition enough to make Dunkirk seem like a playground runaround: in taking on Jordan's novel, Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams have had to marshal big-sky scenesetting, those aerial and tank battles that Ronsel and Jamie find themselves engaged in, and a detailed depiction of what was waiting for both men back on the homefront. The tragedy Mudbound unfolds depends on its characters being children of war, be that of the 19th or 20th century variety: born into a specific moment, with specific circumstances, yielding specific scars and attitudes that aren't easily shrugged off or left behind. We're watching what would come to be known as the Golden Generation, but Rees catches these characters in a quasi-primordial state, battling to extricate themselves from the mire. For an hour, the narration does the heavy lifting, opening up new perspectives within this America: that of a cultured Caucasian woman (Mulligan's Laura), swept off her feet by a farmer only to be deposited in the middle of nowhere with a piano yet no-one to play it for, or that of a ready and able young black man (Mitchell's Ronsel), hailed as a hero over there, yet obliged to return to a place where he's considered next to nothing.

The one voice Rees doesn't allow to take over on the soundtrack, pointedly, is that of the McAllans' racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks), either because she senses the epithets we hear him snarl at assorted Jacksons speak for themselves, or that she knows such voices have become awfully familiar in 2017: here, you sense the writer-director policing the kind of attitudes that have tended to be normalised and validated within this traditionally conservative strain of American cinema. Mudbound is not just woke but completely wide-eyed when it comes to spotting and reframing historical injustices: you witness it in the camera's slow push down a Greyhound bus, past the white folk riding up front to their black countrymen, war heroes and all, sitting segregated in the rear, and in the arrival of the Klan come the final act, not this time as the white knights of The Birth of a Nation, but as harbingers of doom and destruction. Once we're inside this world, however, we're in for good - in part because the plight of the Jacksons and McAllans speaks so much to America's current predicament: the vicious old patriarch, surrounded by well-meaning enablers of the status quo, outnumbered but not yet overcome by the sons and daughters who've emerged from the fight for a better life as altogether wounded warriors, coming to painful terms with the notion their opinions, and maybe even their lives, matter not one jot.

In the film's second act, peace of some form can be spotted on the horizon: Jamie and Ronsel form a boozy bond over their status as forgotten men of the world, Florence and Laura, more soberly, over a shared sense of isolation. Yet their nerves remain frayed, their resources low, and this is all too clearly the sort of tenuous existence that risks being washed away by the first hard rain; we're waiting for the next catastrophe, rather than for things to get better, and Rees seems unlikely to end her film with mixed-race grouphugs and Benetton-ad platitudes. It can seem like a haul at 135 minutes, with certain characters (chiefly Clarke's Henry) ghosting in and out of what must have been an especially tricky edit, but in practically every scene, the performers mesh the spirit of these characters' times with the spirit of ours, and the outcome is a genuine epic that proves far more involving than the bulk of this year's pretty-pretty period pictures. Mudbound is to earlier American Dream movies what Lady Macbeth was to the Downton Abbey school of fiction: a forceful rebuke, convincing in its portrait of the hardscrabble life as it was lived back then, while still fully cognisant of the fact we don't seem all that far removed from its characters' struggles today.

Mudbound is now streaming on Netflix.  

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