Buried amongst the stories of Flying Lotus’ Kuso making people throw up and the perpetual controversy machine that is Casey Affleck (even when he’s under a sheet), there was one story that came out of Sundance that was truly surprising that seemed to escape any and all attention.

Netflix paid an unheard-of sum of $12.5 million dollars to distribute Mudbound, the new film by African-American filmmaker Dee Rees (Pariah, HBO’s Bessie), and it’s hitting the streaming service and certain select theaters today (November 17). It’s been pigeonholed as Netflix’s highest-profile attempt at a Best Picture Oscar, especially after Manchester-by-the-Sea (bought by Amazon at Sundance a year earlier) received a nod and got the worst Affleck a Best Actor Oscar.

All buzz surrounding it disappeared for a couple of months until it screened at TIFF, where a great deal of the reviewing press got to see it and walked out singing its many praises. Yet, this has been a year in which stories set in the South have been unjustly praised by certain critics (I’m looking at you, The Beguiled and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and I regarded it with a certain amount of skepticism. I was wrong. Mudbound is one hell of a film, perhaps the most essential film about the American South since To Kill a Mockingbird, and is a striking confirmation of the promise that Rees showed in her prior features. Indeed, she has crafted a saga well-worthy of your rapt attention.

Adapted from the novel by Hillary Jordan, the film tells the story of two families — one white, one black — that live near each other in Jim Crow-era Mississippi over the course of roughly twenty years, though much of the action takes place between the start of World War II and a few years after its end. The white family, the McAllens, relocate to fulfill one of the dreams of its young-ish patriarch, Henry (Jason Clarke), who believes that he has the mettle to become a farmer, even though he doesn’t have much experience or skill at it. He forces his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), his father (Jonathan Banks), and his children to move out to the rural areas from the city life that they’re used to, and it goes as predictably poorly as you might expect.

The Jacksons, the black family, live near by, and are looking to get ahead in the world by owning their own land, rather than sharecropping like they’ve been forced to for generations. The tough but kind father, Hap, tends his soil as well as to his flock- a congregation that he preaches to from a church that he’s building with his own two hands. His wife, Florence (a fantastic Mary J. Blige), is a midwife and begins to work for the McAllens after they move there, sacrificing her time with her own children in order to help raise a white woman’s so that they can free themselves from economic bondage. The families are united in another way, outside of any geographic marker, in the wartime experiences of Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), the Jacksons’ eldest, and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), Henry McAllen’s rakish brother, and their burgeoning friendship that results from their bond over their service might tear both families apart.

As you might have surmised from the summary, Mudbound is a large and deep work, but it never feels once feels out of Rees’ control. Narratively and visually, it helps significantly that that the filmmaker grew up in the South, as opposed to, say, Sofia Coppola or Martin McDonagh, and she brings both an understanding of the rhythms of life down there and a sensibility that seems to confirm that yes, the locales — the kind of housing, the terrain and the plants — do matter. Moreover, there’s a Faulknerian sprawl that she brings to the work (and there’s a fantastically clever allusion to As I Lay Dying in the final moments of the film), in her skillful expansion of her narrative focus beyond a single protagonist, where she retains the same sort of laser-guided insight to several different point-of-view characters that she did to a singular protagonist, be it Bessie Smith or Pariah’s Alike.

Her sympathies rightfully only go so far, but she provides a level of context and insight to characters that would otherwise be thrown away in favor of their archetype- Blige’s sacrificing mother, Clarke’s stubborn thick-headed farmer, Hedlund’s whiskey-soaked veteran- and makes them deeply compelling. They’re people trapped in a white supremacist society, some yearning to break free of its confines like the Jacksons, and others looking to reassert the power that they believe that they’ve lost, like Jonathan Banks’ “Pappy” McAllen. And when that system strikes back and threatens the lives of some of our characters, it’s done so without sparing the full horrors of Jim Crow-era racist vigilantism, and it’s a scene so painful to watch that I saw most of it through the gaps between my fingers.

Yet despite the visual splendor or the skill and efficacy with which Rees manages her sprawling ensemble, the quiet moments still stick out. Specifically, it’s the friendship between Hedlund and Mitchell that proves to be the most enduring aspect of the movie for me, and the similarity between their stories. Their first scene together turned out to be a happy accident: the threat of heavy rain forced Rees and the production to alter their original plan for the scene, in which the two veterans meet for the first time at the side of a road, and moved them into the cab of Hedlund’s truck. There’s an intimacy to the encounter, and it’s amazing how the mood changes over the course of the scene. We’re in Mitchell’s shoes for the most of it, unsure of Hedlund’s intentions, given that we’ve seen him act like a cad before, and him forcing Mitchell to take a sip of his whiskey feels more and more uncomfortable, until something in Hedlund breaks, and the perspective changes. He tells Mitchell the story of the man who saved his life up in the air somewhere over the fields of Europe: A Tuskegee Airman.

The two then become fast friends, despite the ugly looks they get around town, and even though their story may not have the most ideal of ends, the two offer a glimpse of a world that could be as we want it, rather than it is, free of the muck and mire of hatred. Mudbound is a towering achievement, and it is not to be missed.

Featured image provided by Netflix. Follow Nick Johnston @onlysaysficus.

 

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