MUDBOUND (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Jim Crow South and WWII have each spawned many movies, and both play a crucial role in director Dee Rees’ (BESSIE) adaptation (co-written with Virgil Williams) of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel. It’s the story of two families, the Jacksons and the McAllans, striving for daily survival in rural Mississippi during the 1940’s.

The Jacksons are a black family tenant-farming on land owned by the white McAllans who transplanted from Memphis. This land is so remote and life here so hard, that tractors are almost non-existent and mules are rare enough. There is such bleakness to this existence that all seem oblivious to the ever-present mudhole leading to the front door of their shack. Rare elation comes in the form of a privacy wall constructed around the outdoor family shower, or the sweetness of a bar of chocolate. Soon after D-Day, Florence and Hap Jackson send their son Ronsel off to war. The same thing is happening across the 200 acre farm to Jamie McAllan, younger brother of Henry and son of Pappy.

A shifting of multiple narrators throughout allows us access to the perspectives of the key characters. We get both black and white views on war and farming. Their co-dependence on each other would never be admitted by either the Jacksons or McAllans. Days in war bring injury, death and dirt … not so dissimilar to life on a Mississippi farm. When Ronsel and Jamie return from war, they are both suffering. Ronsel can’t come to grips with how he was treated as a redeemer in Europe, but just another ‘black man’ being targeted by the KKK at home; while Jamie is shell-shocked into alcoholism and an inability to function in society. The parallels between the war experience of Ronsel and Jamie lead them to a friendship that ultimately can’t be good for either.

Jason Clarke plays Henry and Carey Mulligan, his wife Laura. Jonathan Banks (“Breaking Bad”, “Better Call Saul”) is the ultimate nasty racist Pappy, while Garrett Hedlund is Jamie. Rob Morgan and Mary J Blige are Hap and Florence Jackson, and Jason Mitchell (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON) is Ronsel. While all perform well, it’s Mitchell and Hedlund who are particular standouts, as is a radio reference of the great Lou Boudreau. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is terrific and captures both the hardscrabble life of Mississippi, but also the frantic and tragic abruptness of war (in just a couple of scenes).

Racism is always difficult to watch, and in that era, everyone had their place/plight in life. It was a structure built to ensure misery for most, and one guaranteed to collapse. The acting here is very strong and the film is well made. The story-telling is consistently disquieting and periodically unbearable. Still, we are all tired (or should be) of hatred. The somewhat hopeful ending caused an audible sigh of relief from an audience of viewers who had been angry and clinched for more than two hours. And though there is no joy in Mudville, we remain hopeful, even today.

watch the trailer:

 

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LITTLE ACCIDENTS (2015)

January 17, 2015

little accidents Greetings again from the darkness. You know how we always hear that there are no secrets in a small town – how everyone knows your business? This first feature film from writer/director Sara Colangelo exposes the fallacy of that notion. It seems all residents of this small mining community are carrying secrets, and some are whoppers!

The story picks up about a year after a horrible coal mining accident killed ten local miners. The lone survivor was Amos (Boyd Holbrook) who is struggling with physical limitations resulting from the incident.  However, generating more pain for Amos than his withered arm and leg is the internal battle the ongoing investigation is causing him. Should he expose the known safety issues that caused his co-workers to die?  If he does, those 10 families probably get justice and a financial reward, but the mine likely shuts down – crippling the local economy and throwing much of the town out of work.  If keeps quiet, those families get nothing and it’s business as usual for everyone else.

Amos is joined in a daily conundrum of secrets by: Owen (Jacob Lofland), who is much too young to handle the situation an accident has placed him; Owen’s brother James (Beau Wright) who has Down Syndrome and is even less equipped to keep his secret; the mine’s supervisor Bill (Josh Lucas) who defends his poor decisions by saying he only did what the company forced him to do; and Diane (Elizabeth Banks) who is Bill’s wife and reacts to the disappearance of her son and lack of respect for her husband in a manner that can’t possibly end well.

As is common in poverty-stricken communities, there is even more to add. Owen’s father was one of the miners killed in the accident, and Owen was among the group who last saw Bill and Diane’s son alive. Also, Amos is living with his father who is paying the health price for a lifetime of coal mining. The film is bookended by Amos’ testimony regarding the accident, and in between we see these intertwined lives and much soul-suffering and personal stock-taking. It’s a reminder of how powerful grief can be, especially after such an instantaneous tragedy.

Boyd Holbrook and Jacob Lofland deliver outstanding performances. Mr. Holbrook’s career is in skyrocket mode as he appeared in 8 projects during 2013-14 (including Gone Girl, The Skeleton Twins), and has 5 more for 2015 (including Terrence Malick’s next film). Young Mr. Lofland was a standout in both Mud (2012) and his recent recurring role on TV’s “Justified“. Also of note is one of the few dramatic turns for Elizabeth Banks. We have come to expect comedy excellence from her (even as Effie in The Hunger Games), but we have rarely seen the emotional depth she portrays here.

The movie is beautifully shot by Rachel Morrison, and the film stock provides the grainy look that adds to the realistic feel necessary for us to be absorbed into this isolated world. Comparisons to other mining movies are expected, and North Country (2005) and Matewan (1987) come to mind, however, those were centered on mistreatment in the workplace and labor issues, respectively. This movie is much more concerned with grief, and for some reason The Stone Boy (1984) comes to mind. Dealing with tragedy does not become easier with age, financial status or social standing. Ms. Colangelo’s film provides an intimate look at this.

watch the trailer: