Dee Rees’ Film ‘Mudbound’ Is The Strongest Sundance Breakout

Directed by Dee Rees, 'Mudbound' is the strongest film in Sundance history, that will be in the Oscar conversation

‘Mudbound’ is about two families, one white one black, living in Mississippi in the 1940’s, is directed by Dee Rees and stars Mary J. Blige, Straight Outta Compton’s Jason Mitchell and Stranger Things’ Rob Morgan, among others. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2017 to standing ovations, rave reviews, a fierce bidding war and a tweet from 13th director and Oscar nominee Ava DuVernay.

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‘Mudbound’ starts in the midst of World War II and ends after its culmination, not long before the civil rights movement would start to confront America’s racial demons. The horrors of international warfare mirror a violence that is “part and parcel of country life,” as one plantation wife (Carey Mulligan) says in a voice-over. Tragic and confrontational, ‘Mudbound’” unfolds from the perspective of two clans: white Mississippi Delta farmers and the black family employed on their desolate land.

Based on Hillary Jordan’s novel, the movie at first chronicles standard wartime drama. A life of semi-seclusion and scarce resources gives way to domestic tension within the white tribe (Jason Clarke plays Mulligan’s husband, and Jonathan Banks portrays her villainously racist father-in-law), while the hard-working black family’s key concern is putting food on the table and getting their son, Ronsel (a top-notch Jason Mitchell), home from combat.

Ronsel survives, but the community he returns to isn’t much safer. It is riddled with racial turmoil, rendering a fellow veteran (a career-best Garrett Hedlund) one of his sole allies. Turbulence on the farm and in the nearby town escalates, rainstorms threatening to drown any peace of mind. Eventually, a pack of racist white townsfolk get their hands on Ronsel, and ‘Mudbound’ becomes an audacious portrait of mid-century American horrors.

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‘Mudbound’ marks the third feature from Dee Rees, director of the sensational 2011 coming-of-age indie “Pariah” and the 2015 HBO biopic “Bessie.” Those offered intimate character studies, whereas ‘Mudbound’ is a sprawling ensemble that indicts our country’s dirty history.

Rachel Morrison’s earthy cinematography distracts from the 131-minute runtime, which could use a trim to avoid tangential subplots. Rees’ film feels most alive in its ravaging final half hour, but it takes some time to get there. It’s apparent the talented director has expanded her cinematic scope with each project, and while ‘Mudbound’ retains the human poetry of “Pariah,” it loses its sharp focus. That doesn’t make the ending any less searing. Follow the muddy journey, and, no matter the path, you will come out on the side of gross racial injustice. Told with a blend of terror and hope, this is a tale we need to see.

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