Dee Rees’s latest feature is a perfect example of why we should mourn the death of the mid-budget Hollywood film for adults. Made for just $10 million and barely turning a profit in its sale to Netflix, Mudbound tries its best to convey an Old Hollywood epic on an “online content” scale & budget and does an admirable job of it. If it were made a few decades ago it might have had the mid-range budget needed to fully capture the literary adaptation scope of its look at race relations in the post-WWII American South (it also would almost certainly have been directed by a white man instead of a black woman, so I guess not everything is changing for the worse). Instead, Rees has to be careful about where she spends money to hit with full force even if the grand scale spectacle can’t deliver what’s promised. Mudbound is the story of two families divided by racial barriers in 1940s Mississippi, but it’s also the story of a talented director not getting the full resources needed to properly do their job in the 2010s.
Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton) & Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) star as two Southern men on opposite ends of the racial divide who struggle to readjust to American life after fighting in World War II. Both soldiers suffer PTSD from the war & flirt with alcoholism to cope, but only one has to deal with what it feels like to be a second class citizen after their brief period as a war heroes, thanks to the violent racial bias of 1940s Mississippi. Their respective stories are told in the larger context of two families, one white & one black, who share the same failing farmland (with matriarchs played by Carey Mulligan & Mary J. Blige). Mudbound explores the way post-slavery servitude continued in the Jim Crow South, the tyranny of racial privilege, the weight of war atrocities on the human psyche, the routine disappointments of an old-fashioned loveless marriage, and all kinds of other issues more befitting of a novel or a movie twice its length & budget. At the foundation of this mountain of historical dramas, though, is the horrific connection made between the two ex-soldiers who shared a common traumatic past but lived in two entirely different worlds because of their race. It’s a connection that can only end in misery, a tragic inevitability the film does not shy away from when it counts most.
Mudbound is at its weakest when it’s tasked to convey a sense of grand scale scope it can’t deliver on an Online Content budget. The voiceover narration and scenes of tank & airplane warfare are where the seams of the limited budget show most egregiously. Rees still delivers a powerful punch whenever she can afford to, though, making sure that the muddy & blood details of Mudbound’s smaller moments hit with full, unforgiving impact. Both families at the heart of this story are physically & metaphorically weighed down by the oppressive terrain of 1940s Mississippi farmland. Their lives are literally sinking into the endless mud that surrounds them, inextricably molded by the violence & history of their surroundings. This becomes especially powerful in intimate moments where a flash flood nearly drowns a white man digging up an anonymous slave’s grave or where the sounds of a black man getting kicked in the ribs overpower the soundtrack with the whaps of a baseball bat driving into a punching bag. When the impact of its imagery actually matches the scope of its budget, the movie is an undeniable powerhouse.
Mudbound should have been a $30-50 million adult drama with wide theatrical distribution and a genuine Oscars push. Instead, it’s a third of its appropriate production scale and heading straight to Netflix, where it’s in danger of being promptly forgotten. Considering the resources Dee Rees was afforded to tell this historically & culturally expansive story, she did an impressive job in delivering powerful details in the small, aggressively uncomfortable moments that make the movie work better than it should. She should have never been put into that position, though, and the movie would have been so better if she were afforded the freedom of full, appropriate funding.