‘Mudbound’ (2017) | Sundance Review

Voiceover narration is a prickly thing. With moviemaking in general being a show don’t tell medium, voiceover can often feel like a crutch a filmmaker rests on when she or he is not confident enough in storytelling technique. Often times it can act as needless color to emphasize a point or mood, like Terrence Malick does. Mudbound is a compelling, ambitious tale of racial tension in post-WWII Mississippi, but it’s power is marred by the over abundance of voiceover, from six different characters no less, that it often feels more like director Dee Rees is reading you the Hillary Jordan novel upon which this is based rather than dramatizing it.

Mudbound chronicles two families, one black and one white, in Mississippi. Henry (Jason Clarke) is the head of household and husband to Laura (Carey Mulligan). He decides he wants to move his family out to the country and start a farm, where they will also take care of his father/insane racist (Jonathan Banks). On the farm lives Hap (Rob Morgan), his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), and three of their children who one day dream of owning a piece of their own land. Both families have a member serving in World War II, Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Hap and Florence’s eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell).

The first half is a great deal of world building, and where most of the voiceover I mentioned occurs. We are told about all the characters wants, how they see the world, and all that stuff. There is not a ton of dramatic propulsion until the midway point when the war is over. Jamie and Ronsel return home from the war and form a friendship over their military experience. This is where actual dramatized tension forms. It affects every character in the film, from Ronsel’s parents not trusting a white man showing a black person kindness to the active hiding of the friendship to Jamie’s racist dad.

Mudbound

Mudbound wants to be a sprawling tale of race in the South, which I am totally onboard for, but every part of the epic needs to be dramatically engaging. Simply showing us shots of the black and white families behaving similarly with voiceover telling us their feelings gives us no drama. Bringing Ronsel and Jamie together actually creates conflict and character in an organic, observational way. Mitchell and Hedlund also are quite good in showing the similar yet distinct ways war has truly affected them. They are the natural center of the film, so when the film eventually gets to it, Mudbound takes off.

On a production front, the period feels accurately recreated. Production designer David J. Bomba and costume designer Michael T. Boyd do a lot with what is clearly not a very large budget. The keep things just casual enough to where the period doesn’t scream at you for how period it is, making it a far more believable setting. The only visual piece lacking is when Jamie is in his fighter jet. We never leave the cockpit, and outside the windows is just a blur. This is a movie that clearly does not have the largest visual effects budget, so Dee Rees and company try to make the most of it. However, the budget there is still a tiny setback.

Mudbound‘s final 45-ish minutes are very strong, but they can’t fully make up the previous hour’s worth of constant narration, which is frustrating. When Rees decides to actually dramatize the story, it soars, but just straight up telling us character’s thoughts and actions in a movie is quite boring. The movie is a few minutes over two hours long, and this story is one that actually deserves to be much longer to serve the ambitious epic it really is. As it stands, Mudbound tells an important story of racial tension that for quite a long time felt oddly tensionless.

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