A pair of Netflix original films that are worth a watch in one case and one of the year’s best in another…
Mudbound…Most films about racial tension in the Southeast take place during the 1860’s Civil War period and the slavery days right before it or the daily insults of segregation during the Civil Rights-era 1960’s (every now and then, one is even set in the present day). But what about that “quiet” century between when the world was paying attention to the South’s dehumanization of its black citizens? When there was really no hope in sight that things would get better? Dee Rees (who broke out with the excellent “Pariah”) is interested in more intimate, hushed scenes of how people live in oppressive systems, and it’s this more realistic portrayal (Jeff Nichols “Loving” is another solid example) that grounds “Mudbound”‘s best scenes. At first, I was worried this would be yet another film where British/Australian actors like Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke chase Oscar-glory by trotting out bad Southern stereotypes.
But Rees is too savvy a screenwriter not to really get a guy like Clarke, who is so single-minded in making his burden of a farm profitable that he barely connects with anyone around him, especially the black workers that he treats as breathing farm equipment. A guy like this doesn’t need to be cartoonishly evil or even overtly racist to tacitly support an economic system that provides him with cheap labor. Jonathan Banks’s “Pappy” is the true villain of the film, but Clarke’s morally complicit son thinks nothing of asking a black WWII veteran to apologize to him for using the front door of a store. And that veteran would be the heartbreaking Jason Mitchell (the “Straight Outta Compton” actor who’s a shoe-in for a Best Supporting Actor nomination), who actually enjoyed WWII since it’s the closest he can get to a fair opportunity, and longs to be reunited with a German love. Grade: A
Wheelman…Writer/Director Jeremy Rush proves more talented behind the camera than behind the keyboard. The script for “Wheelman” (which takes place in real time mostly in gorgeous, carefully orchestrated one-take scenes with a floating camera never too far away from a car) is mediocre at best, and you may wonder if Frank Grillo’s “fuck you” ultra-New York performance—although the movie takes place (I think) in Boston—is supposed to be as irritating as it comes off. [The scenes where he berates someone or yells “fuck you” hysterically at them outnumber scenes where he doesn’t do this.] Still, it’s hard not to be impressed with the sheer technical skill of what we’re seeing here. And any movie featuring Shea Whigham and Garret Dillahunt can’t be all bad. Grade: B- …Although I’m excited to see what Rush does next.