It’s one of the most famous lines in Hollywood cinema: Norma Desmond, movie queen of the silent era and the anti-heroine of Sunset Boulevard (1950), flares her nostrils and declares, “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.”
She never lived to see Netflix.
Streaming services, Netflix chief among them, have revolutionized the way television content is produced and consumed, but movies have been a trickier debate, even as the line between “TV” and “cinema” gets blurrier by the year. One reason Amazon beat Netflix over the finish line as the first web giant to win a top Oscar—with last year’s Manchester by the Sea—is that Amazon still treats films as a theatrical event. The challenge that Netflix has set for itself is finding a way to virtually skip the theatrical window, go right to your TV and mobile devices, and somehow shake off that direct-to-video stigma that can make a movie feel small. And make no mistake, Mudbound, Dee Rees’s new film and Netflix’s gambit for Oscar season, is the sort of film that needs to feel big. It’s a historical/literary period piece that spans years. It is a two-hour-plus story that straddles a historical fissure (World War II, in fact, the Academy’s favorite historical fissure). It tackles the social issue of American racism. It films the heartland sunrise in CinemaScope. It jumps back and forth a few times between continents. And it features an award-eligible original song, played at the end for your consideration.
But even setting aside how Mudbound is distributed and received—which, to be fair, may wind up the most consequential thing about it—it is a film that wastes too much of what it does well. The greatest strength of this tidy epic about two families in the Deep South, one black and one white, is its Faulknerian dedication to multiple point of views. It trades off inner monologs and voice-overs, mapping how the world of the film looks if you’re young or old, male or female, rich or poor, black or white. But its sense of time and place is thin. It can’t consistently fool you into thinking you’re not watching actors in costumes. And by the end, it has dived into the melodramatic hand-me-downs that have haunted the Academy stage since at least Sophie’s Choice: that is, Mudbound feels like our era’s version of an earlier era’s version of an earlier era. Even as it goes for a violent gut-punch near the end, I’m not entirely convinced this kind of period piece is the most effective way to provoke a dialogue about race in America in 2017. A bizarro genre film like Get Out—whose villains aren’t mid-century brutes with Mississippi drawls, but a left-leaning white upper-class that’ll swear on its heart that it loves black people—is so much better at stirring the pot.
By comparison, the world of Mudbound, multiple perspectives and all, is frozen in sepia and converted to a digital copy. It is not a film without impact. It has characters, it has an arc, it has a destination, it has a certain soap-operatic intrigue, it has an ambition towards complex humanism. When it is content to quietly smolder rather than yank, it has moments that strike home. But at least 40% of it feels like it could have sprung, fully formed and without an individual identity, from the collective unconscious of Oscar season itself. That the film has arguably accrued more year-end prestige than any Netflix movie so far may be its biggest irony: a still-early trial balloon for the model of the future has one foot so utterly tethered to the old-fashioned.
Mudbound premiered at Sundance and was given a small theatrical release to qualify for awards. It currently lives on Netflix.