Mudbound tells the story of two families—one black, one white—living on the same parcel of land in 1930s Mississippi. One son from each family goes off to fight in WWII; when they return, both experience a massive culture shock. The experience of war unites them in ways they couldn’t have imagined, and a friendship forms, much to the chagrin of the townsfolk, who view their bond as a massive social transgression.
It’s an inherently interesting story, but it just didn’t work for me. I feel that director Dee Rees, who also co-adapted the screenplay, commits two fatal flaws that stop her film from being successful. The first is its very structure. Rees’s film opens with a white man stopping a black family in a carriage. He demands help from them to get a coffin in the ground. The body of the film is a flashback, showing how the characters got to that point. This robs the ending of the power it would have had, because it’s obvious to us well in advance who winds up in that coffin. Rees uses flashbacks at other points in the movie, notably to show us some WWII footage, that disrupt the narrative flow rather than enhance it.
The second and more egregious flaw is Rees’s ill-considered use of voiceover. The voiceover in Mudbound seems to serve two purposes. It gives us access to the inner thoughts and feelings of characters that Rees is either incapable of or uninterested in dramatising. But it also, in many curious instances, serves to tell us exactly what Rees is showing us in the same instant. For example, there is a sequence where Rees shows us a godawful rainstorm, lasting for days, which ruins the soil and makes all the characters generally unhappy. During this sequence, a voiceover tells us that a rainstorm has hit, lasting for days, ruining the soil, and making everyone unhappy.
I don’t imagine for a second that this was Rees’s intention, but a voiceover telling us exactly what we’re seeing is a massive distancing technique. It holds the audience at arm’s length, preventing emotional involvement. (cf Wakefield.) More curiously, Rees relies on the technique pretty much only in her first half; the film’s second hour is largely devoid of voiceover, as she lets the power of her images speak for themselves. But by then, it’s too late to pull us in. It also makes her film seem a little lopsided; we notice the absence of the voiceovers because of their overabundance in the first half.
Something about Mudbound that I’m sure bothers me more than it will anybody else is that, well, there’s really not a lot to it. It doesn’t go a lot deeper than its narrative, which I’ve already noted is remote and choppy. Now, I don’t need every movie to have deep, penetrating themes. But for a story that would otherwise be inherently stirring, it all seems pretty empty when the credits roll.
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