#43 — Mudbound (Dee Rees, 2017)
Ten years is a long time, so it’s hardly remarkable to survey that length of time in a chunk of cinema history and discern major differences between the respective creative landscape and the starting and end points. It is still a little dizzying to consider how rapidly some of the changes emerged on the business side of moviemaking during the twenty-tens, as studio consolidation and the unpredictable dynamics of theater exhibition and home video could render healthy studios moribund in the dying flicker of a projector with physical film strung through it. To chose a single example of transformative change, in 2010, Netflix was still entirely reliant of other company’s content to populate their distribution avenues, including a still-fledgling streaming service. By the time 2019 was through, it was pouring money into production and acquisition, practically the only outlet willing to step up and give established filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach the resources needed to realize their creative visions.
Netflix as purveyors of serious cinema art — as something more than a firehose of content that occasionally spit out a couple droplets the glimmered impressively — began, I’d argue, with Mudbound, from writer-director Dee Rees. The project didn’t originate with Netflix. Like Miramax at the beginning of the indie boom, Netflix went to the Sundance Film Festival itching to write big numbers on checks. But choosing Mudbound was itself a statement, a commitment to sort of serious-minded, artistically committed filmmaking the major studios had by that point almost entirely abandoned, deciding flailing attempts at interlocking franchises was a better business model than aiming for the minor box office uptick that came from chasing awards glory. Mudbound seems like a throwback, and that is its great strength.
Based on a 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound is set in the Mississippi delta in that years around World War II. It is primarily concerned with two families: black sharecroppers and white transplants that own their farm outright but are beset with their own significant struggles in taming the land. But the plot particulars — grueling and heartbreaking as they might be — are less critical than the cumulative power of social tensions at play, which Rees depicts with acute understanding of the schisms that develop, tremor, and explode wide open because humans collide in moments of agonizing worry and uncertainty. In particular, Rees is powerfully uncompromising in her depiction of the racism of the time and place, when even war heroes are susceptible to the insidious weight of oppression.
Rees’s storytelling is impeccable, weaving together multiple story threads into a clear, compelling narrative. And her command of the more technical aspects of the film is even more impressive. Aided by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, Rees crafts absolutely ravishing visuals. In the one cruel turn of Netflix providing the means for Rees’s film to reach more people than it otherwise would have, Mudbound is made for a big screen, where its precision and lush splendor could weaken knees and elicit awestruck gasps. It’s a regret but not a tragedy that Mudbound wasn’t more often seen that way. Rees’s achievement dazzles at any size.