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« Beauty vs Beast: Lady (Bird) You Are Doing Just Fine | Main | Which actresses are we underestimating in the nomination hunt? »
Monday
Nov272017

The Furniture: Building a Way out of Mudbound

 

"The Furniture," by Daniel Walber, is our weekly series on Production Design. You can click on the images to see them in magnified detail. 

“I dreamed in brown,” remembers Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), surveying the near-monochrome dirt of a Mississippi farm. This small pocket of land is owned by her husband, Henry (Jason Clarke), but one doesn’t get much of a sense that she’d call it home. He appears not to like it either, but is motivated by a sour sense of duty. Perhaps this is why his agricultural efforts fail, barely introducing any green into this expanse of brown.

Even more obvious, when it comes to metaphors, is the way Mudbound begins. Dee Rees opens her earthbound epic on Henry in the dirt, digging a grave. The deceased is his Pappy (Jonathan Banks), an acrimonious Klan member who has done his utmost to pass his ideology down to his sons. It’s largely worked on Henry. Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) resists, but still winds up digging in the mud.

 

At the bottom of this new ditch, Henry finds a skull. It’s a “slave’s grave,” he declares; he can tell by the bullet-hole. It’s a hint at an old story, one that Rees knows she needn’t bother put into words...

It’s not difficult to guess. So bound by the white supremacist ideology of his father, Henry begins and ends in the mud, excavating this intransigent violence.

As such, the charge of production designer David Bomba isn’t terribly flashy. The farm buildings all have roughly the same impact. The most memorable feature might be the rickety bridge, a fragile lifeline to the general store and the town doctor. This place is as isolated as it is miserable.

 

The farm is stuck. Henry’s farming style is the same as that of his ancestors: rely on the sweat of others. Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his family have been tilling this land for generations. Once slaves, now they are share-croppers. Henry even forces Hap to rent a mule to do his work, further binding him financially to this earth. Once upon a time, the promise of Reconstruction would have had the Jacksons owning this land themselves. Instead, they barely get by as employees of a man with little expertise or vision.

Yet in the opening burial scene, the Jackson family is on their way to a different life. The circumstances are kept vague, but the image is planted. Hap, Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their children are leaving, perhaps to a place with more promise. The film’s one prominent metaphor of set design helps illustrate this point.

While Henry and his family push down, in the loop of gravedigging, Hap and his children build upward. Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), finally returned from the war, takes Jamie to his favorite place in town. It’s not much to speak of, really, an abandoned structure with holes in the roof. But it also has a refreshingly high ceiling, and its lines are much more engaging to the eye than the dour houses and barns of the farm.

 

This space underlines Ronsel’s inability to settle into this miserable landscape of hatred and violence, especially in the wake of his experience as a tank commander in Europe. It is a symbol of his restlessness and ambition, which will not fit into the cramped shacks of this rural nightmare.

Another architectural metaphor is even more affecting. Hap is also a preacher. He leads prayer in a makeshift church, forever in a state of partial construction. The wood panels appear to be slowly climbing the walls, one plank at a time. None have yet made it to the roof. The windows are not yet glazed, but the multicolored panels occupying some of the gaps suggest the colors of stained glass.

 

This church-in-progress has an energy of its own, aspirational and communal. Hap and his parishioners possess a will to grow, exactly the sort of energy that Henry McAllan lacks. His farm languishes in its muddy browns because its owner lives by the stubborn rules of the past and present, sticks buried in the mud. The Jacksons are building in an entirely different direction, upward and finally outward.

Previous 2017 films featured:
Atomic Blonde Neon nihilism
Beatriz at Dinner tacky mansion
The Beguiled a plaster haze
• Colossal Hoarding and emptiness
• Frantz Decorating for a lost generation
• Get Out Beige house of colonial horrors
King Arthur reframing the legend
Personal Shopper framing the unseen
• A Quiet Passion floral punctuations
• The Lost City of Z deranged ambitions, indulgent fantasies 

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Reader Comments (5)

this is such a beautiful piece. I hope everyone who enjoys Mudbound reads it.

November 27, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Just watched it last night. Really really liked it (and this lovely piece of writing about it). Curious, do you think its award chances art hurt by Netflix (I mean, I did just watch it on "TV" first) or something inherent in the film? The reviews were certainly stellar enough...

November 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom M

Tom --- i think it's the Netflix issue though who knows. Maybe it will do great (we're only at the very very beginning of the season and it's already won two ensemble prizes). the issue is that(many people within Hollywood think that it's an unfair playing field. The Academy has lots of rules designed to make everything equal among competitors -- like you can only spend so much money at awards functions, there are rules for events promoting films, there are blocked out times, etcetera. But Netflix has proven unwilling to play by the rules or at least the spirit of the rules. Technically speaking Amazon could do what Netflix does and immediatey stream their contenders but they choose to show their movies in theater first and then stream them. Netfli will only do day and date and it's clear that they have no interest in theatrical distribution so for many this means they aren't a "movie" studio but "tv" and should be aiming for Emmys.

Notice how much coverage both pro and negative the other contenders get if they're a hit or a flop at the box office. Netflix gets no negative coverage at all because there is no risk for them. so in that way it feels like an unfair playing field. a film like mudbound released in theaters would be very affected by its box office. if it did well it would probably become a sure thing (because succesful dramas are generally rewarded - everyone likes supporting winners). if it tanked like say last flag flying or detroit... people would lose interest. And since Netflix doesn't even release ratings there's also no way of knowing if its even a success within their own ecosystem.

November 27, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

so sad that Mudbound is great on everyway except for the actual movie itself. watching it was mostly a messy chore. every actor was underused. I hope it only gets Oscar noms in tech categories I wasnt even that enamoured with Mary J Blige.

November 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterkris

Nat --- Great analysis. I hadn't thought about the box office as a factor. I do have a hunch that it might have an advantage with SAG, though...so easy for all those work-a-day actors to watch it on Netflix and they won't have the same negativity about the platform.

November 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom M

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