A year ago, “Manchester by the Sea” debuted on the first Saturday of Sundance 2016. That same magic must have rubbed off on Dee Rees’ “Mudbound,” an operatic drama about two families set in 1940s Mississippi Delta that premiered to the most enthusiastic standing ovation of this year’s Park City gathering so far.
The packed crowd at the Eccles Theatre included a number of moguls and heavyweights, among them Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, AMC chief Josh Sapan, Roadside Attractions’ co-founder Howard Cohen, Bleecker Street chief Andrew Karpen and Amazon Studios’ Ted Hope and Bob Berney.
Insiders predict that “Mudbound” is likely to land a deal in the eight-figure range, following a heated bidding war. That said, while the film is powerful, the subject matter and violence caused scattered walkouts toward the end of the picture. To work commercially, the film will need awards love and strong reviews.
The 2018 Academy Awards telecast is still 13 months away, but “Mudbound” kicked off the annual parlor game of trying to spot the Oscar contender in the batch of indies landing in Utah. And like “Manchester,” this carefully crafted story rests on exceptional performances.
Mary J. Blige, as the mother of the Jackson family, gives a transformative performance that will elevate the acting career of the R&B star. Jason Mitchell (“Straight Outta Compton”), who plays her World War II veteran son Ronsel, is equally great.
As members of the McAllan family, who relocate to a rural farmhouse, only to face an escalating series of hardships, Carey Mulligan and Garrett Hedlund deliver some of the best turns of their careers.
But it is Rees, who came to Sundance with her first feature “Pariah” in 2011, who will likely receive the biggest boost from the rapturous reception. “I saw this as a being a story about two families,” she said in a post-screening Q&A, making the point that she employed a female-centric crew. “I saw this being a story of amazing women. I wanted to juxtapose the battle at home with the battle abroad.”
Rees told the audience that the story had a personal connection. Her grandmother’s parents were sharecroppers in the rural South, and both of her grandfathers fought in World War II. “This film is about the search for citizenship,” she said. “It’s about the impossibility of going home.”
Part of “Mudbound’s” power comes from its casting of two strong heroines and the connection they forge despite living in a segregated society. “As women we have a bond,” Blige said. “There’s this thing we all understand about each other. Don’t make me say it—menstrual cramps, labor pains. We understand each other, and that’s what make us connect and that’s where the chemistry comes from.”