In the Mississippi Delta of the 1940s, two farming families—one of white landholders, one of Black tenant farmers—are bound by the unforgiving soil they share as they struggle to survive amid the upheavals of World War II and the poisonous hatred of the Jim Crow South. Each family sends a young man off to battle; when they return home, scarred, and find a common bond, the community is ripped apart. Writer-director Dee Rees, with cowriter Virgil Williams, crafts a uniquely American tragedy, imbuing bitter historical realities with a timeless weight. Featuring bone-deep performances from her ensemble cast—including Carey Mulligan, Mary J. Blige, Jason Mitchell, Rob Morgan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, and Jonathan Banks—and backed by Rachel Morrison’s darkly burnished cinematography, Mudbound is a searing humanist study of inheritance based upon Hillary Jordan’s novel.
The Criterion Collection presents Dee Rees’ Mudbound on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a 2K master supplied by Netflix.
Despite having the option to shoot using film (the film was produced independently before being purchased by Netflix), Rees and director of photography, Rachael Morrison opted to use digital for budgetary reasons; as Morrison reveals in an included interview, if they used film, they would have lost a few days of filming with an already tight schedule. That said, through experimentation and choices in color grading, they have achieved a terrific look for the movie, still somewhat film-like, even if the color scheme primarily consists of earthy tones: browns, dull reds, dark greens, and so forth. Those colors look wonderfully saturated and rich; black levels still appear inky and deep.
The digital source looks generally clean, though a handful of artifacts can more than likely be traced back to the digital source. Gradations and blending are usually clean, but darker scenes can feature banding artifacts in the background. It could be related to the encoding, though streaming the film on Netflix shows similar artifacts. Other factors should be considered when comparing to streaming sources (including but not limited to internet bandwidth), yet this can still suggest it’s baked into the source master or even a byproduct of the original photography. Otherwise, it’s a fine enough digital presentation.
The disc includes the film’s Dolby Atmos audio soundtrack, which I listened to on my 5.1.2 setup, with the Atmos speakers in the front. I wasn’t holding high expectations for the presentation, but it’s a surprisingly effective mix. Outside of a couple of scenes involving crowds or other larger groups of people, dialogue is focused on the fronts while music is mixed efficiently through the surround speakers. However, several immersive sequences take advantage of the Atmos setup, including the opening shots in a rainstorm and some of the war sequences scattered about.
The audio is also very sharp and clean, with ample range and fantastic fidelity. It sounds excellent and is a far more aggressive mix than I expected.
(A descriptive audio track has also been included.)
To my surprise, Criterion has put together an impressive special edition for the film, even getting director Dee Rees to sit down for an exclusive audio commentary. The track is an all-encompassing one on the production, detailing what attracted her to it (surprisingly, it was initially the details around a black soldier fighting in World War II) and how to adapt the novel best (starting with Virgil Williams’ screenplay), while also getting into the technical aspects, from getting the right look to finding the appropriate score. It’s also somewhat amusing to hear how they dealt with the weather in the area, where it would rain when they didn’t want it to, and it wouldn’t rain when they did. She even brings up influences, including Les Blank’s films on Lightnin Hopkins.
One of the more interesting sections focuses on how the film was dismissed upon its release because it was streamed through Netflix. This particularly frustrated her because she felt the film was being dismissed for “not being a real movie” since it was premiering on a streaming service. This leads to her talking about the film’s independent nature and the difficulty she had in finding a buyer for it after another “Black film,” 2016’s The Birth of a Nation, bombed (she does hint at the other controversies that harmed that film, though dances around them). Netflix was the only one interested in it, and she felt it was a good arrangement.
She gets into other topics, explaining how she wanted the film to depict an era as it was, even if the story itself is fictional. She also addresses some surprising criticisms of the film, like how some felt a lynching scene was too graphic. It’s also laced with some funny little moments, like when she suggests Garrett Hedlund would make a great James Bond or expresses how proud she is of the racist joke she wrote for Jonathan Banks’ Pappy to tell. It’s a dense and entertaining director track, and I’m glad Criterion saw fit to include it.
I was expecting the remaining material to be all Netflix-produced stuff, though that thankfully doesn’t appear to be the case, probably because the film was made outside of the company. There’s a 24-minute behind-the-scenes making-of called Take It When You Got It. On top of video footage of the production, it also includes interviews with members of the cast and crew, including screenwriter Virgil Williams and author Hillary Jordan, who explains how the novel’s story morphed through the years as she wrote it (it was a far different story in the beginning). There’s also some material around the footage done.
Alongside that are a couple of interview features, starting with Iron Sharpens Iron: The Women Creating “Mudbound,” featuring Rees, editor Mako Kamitsuna, makeup artist Angie Wells, and composer Tamar-Kali all explaining their collaborative efforts in creating the proper look and feel for the film. There is also a new 17-minute interview with production designer David J. Bomba, who explains how they were able to recreate the period and setting with such a limited budget (some of it comes down to luck).
Criterion then uses an interview filmed between filmmaker Jim Hemphill and Director of Photography Rachael Morrison at the American Society of Cinematographers in 2017 as the basis for one of the disc’s most vital features, a 28-minute program on the film's photography. Morrison explains how they initially wanted to shoot on film, but the costs would limit what they could do in other areas. Hence, they had to experiment with digital to get the appropriate look that they felt was suitable to the era without it looking digital. This leads to a discussion on the film’s color grading, the lighting, and the lenses used, on top of working on a very tight schedule. Criterion edits in clips and raw footage to accompany some of her comments. It's a really terrific addition.
And finally, the disc closes with two trailers, including the teaser, which doesn’t convey what the film is about. Criterion also (surprisingly) includes a booklet, not a fold-out insert, featuring an essay on the movie by Danielle Amir Jackson, who relates the film’s central friendship to one from her childhood.
In the end, I would have liked more academic material, but Jackson’s essay fills that gap. All around, it’s a relatively solid collection of material.
A decent digital presentation alongside a solid set of extras. It's well worth picking up.