The fact that the Oscar nominations for the previous year are announced halfway through Sundance serves as a nice reality check for those prone to deeming anything at the fest an awards contenders. Remember, last year, Birth of a Nation was supposed to be a surefire nominee; hell, some had already declared it an Oscar winner. But then again, the other big title at last year’s fest was Manchester by the Sea, which has had serious awards juice. Something something the Movie Gods something.
Of course, none of that stops people from talking Oscar when it comes to Sundance films. Take the case of Dee Rees’ excellent Mudbound, which had wags buzzing as soon as it premiered. That’s understandable, as the film is a historical drama with epic sweep and big emotions. Based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel, Mudbound follows the intersecting lives of two families — one white, one black — working the same land. It's the early 1940s, and Memphis city slicker Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) has just moved into a farm in Mississippi with his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and father (Jonathan Banks). Also living there is tenant farmer Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), his wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige), and their kids, the eldest of whom, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), we first meet as he’s going off to fight in World War II. At the heart of the story are Jamie's and Ronsel’s experiences in combat and their struggles upon coming home — dealing with trauma, alcoholism, racism and unspeakable violence.
Rees’s film unfolds via multiple perspectives and voice-overs: At different points James, Laura, Henry, Florence, Hap and Ronsel all narrate. The voice-overs are surprisingly literate, almost abstracted — I haven’t read the book, but I’ll bet they come straight from Jordan’s novel. Early on, Hap mulls the irony of the multiple meanings of “deed” — noting that the land he works is owned by a white man with a deed, and not by the African-American men and women who built it with their deeds. This ruminative, poetic dimension stands in sharp contrast to the elemental forces onscreen: Visually, Rees foregrounds the physical cruelty of farm life, of disease and brutal weather, of dirt and grime that won’t wash off. Through these poles of physical struggle and lyrical reflection, we come to understand these people.
Though not quite as huge, Mudbound at times reminded me of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, with its tale of two men on opposite sides of the class struggle and its depiction of landowners who imagine themselves fair-minded and good but prove feckless in the face of absolute evil (fascism in 1900’s case, racism in Mudbound’s). Like Bertolucci’s film, Mudbound finds a simmering regret beneath a breathless narrative filled with melodrama and violence. And its vision of a world where class, cowardice and extremism circumscribe our common humanity is devastating.
David Lowery’s aggressively oblique A Ghost Story is certainly shorter than Mudbound, but it’s even more ambitious with its timeframe, actually traversing centuries. Shot — at least initially — in chilly, fixed long takes, it’s the bizarre story of a man (Casey Affleck) who becomes a ghost after dying in a car crash, then haunts the house where he lived with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara), long after she has left, waiting for her to come back. One sequence exemplifies the oddness of the conceit: In one lengthy sequence, much of it filmed statically, from a distance, we watch as Mara stands over Affleck’s dead body, which is covered in a white sheet on a hospital table. After she leaves, Lowery holds on the sheet-covered corpse for what seems like an eternity. And then … the dead man rises, his body still cloaked in white. He walks through the hospital — the lengthy, elegant train of his sheet drifting along the corridors — and out to his house.
A Ghost Story has a playfully arty and surreal style that’s reminiscent of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, though it lacks the mysterious physicality and naturalism of that director’s best work, and its what-the-fuckery feels more calculated than organic. Lowery’s picture has won the adoration of many critics here, and while it’s always nice to see offbeat work be embraced, I found A Ghost Story mostly alienating, at times even annoying. Lowery’s ability to frame a shot might be peerless, but his story, as weird as it is, still turns on passion and regret, none of which come through in any meaningful way. All the fixed shots and pointedly lengthy depictions of the mundane seem to me avoidance rather than engagement. Example: Mara spends five minutes eating an entire pie in one take, in a scene that is probably supposed to be about grief but is really more about the audacity of Mara spending five minutes eating an entire pie.
Lowery does have interesting ideas, among them the notion of showing a haunted place from the perspective of the figure doing the haunting. And there’s purpose behind his odd pacing: The film begins in comically drawn-out fashion but eventually bounds through years and decades and centuries between shots, as if time itself were gaining speed. The parts that clicked for me were the ones showing the ghost continuing to haunt his given spot even as the house is torn down and giant skyscrapers and cities rise up around him — like a paranormal, postmodern variation on Virginia Lee Burton’s classic children’s book The Little House. It is at these moments that the ghost seems to become, briefly, the spirit of the futility of all human endeavor.
It’s hard to think of two movies more different than Mudbound and A Ghost Story. But oddly enough, Travis Wilkerson’s intense, mesmerizing and heartbreaking Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? serves as a fascinating bridge between the two. Wilkerson’s project probably doesn’t yet technically even count as a film: He narrates live and personally cues the images and audio as he proceeds, though one can easily imagine this multimedia experience becoming a single-channel movie at some point in the future. However, the director’s personal presence currently feels critical, since the whole thing is a family confessional.
“Trust me when I tell you that this isn’t another white savior story. This is a white nightmare story,” Wilkerson proclaims, looking us straight in the eyes. Through home movies, documentary footage, photographs, interviews, narration and text, he tells us about his great-grandfather S.E. Branch, who in 1946 shot and killed a black man by the name of Bill Spann who had come into Branch’s small store. Branch originally was charged with murder but got off scot-free. His face can be seen in a couple of pieces of home-movie footage that Wilkerson plays repeatedly, at different speeds and in different combinations. Wilkerson recounts his attempts to learn more about the murder and his great-grandfather’s victim. Heading back to Dothan, Alabama, whence his mother’s family hails, he found very little: a death certificate for Bill Spann, a couple of newspaper articles from the time, some vague bits of family lore.
Expanding his investigation, Wilkerson discovered more connections, some tangible, some spiritual. His efforts took him to the nearby town of Abbeville, Rosa Parks’ childhood home, and Cottonwood, a place where the Ku Klux Klan has deep roots. Everywhere he went, he tells us, seems to be haunted: the building that was once his grandfather’s store; the trees in Cottonwood, from which bodies once hung; the abandoned hospital where Spann died — a place where blacks were treated in the dank basement, and whose door is marked by a giant, rust-gray spot where a man committed suicide. It’s hard not to experience Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? and not get shivers up your spine — from fear, from anger and from the beauty of Wilkerson’s filmmaking.
Wilkerson’s work, like Rees’ Mudbound, is about two families, one white and one black. And like that film, it shows how one family takes root and establishes itself through the force of privilege, class and violence — pushing the other out into the void. Wilkerson has home movies and pictures and interviews from his family — a lifetime of memories and records — but can’t learn anything about Bill Spann. He can locate no relatives, no records aside from a death certificate. He goes searching for the man’s grave and finds only an unmarked spot in an African-American cemetery where he thinks it might be. It’s as if an entire bloodline has been extinguished.
But Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is also, like A Ghost Story, a movie about haunted places. In Lowery’s hermetically sealed alt-fable, a delusional ghost waits for a loved one, almost like an abandoned dog waiting for its owner. Wilkerson’s specters aren’t nearly so hopeful, or romantic, or naive. He reconnects us with one of the sources of Americans’ fascination with ghost stories. “Have you ever been in a place where you feel like something awful happened there?” the director asks upon entering the dim, decrepit building that once was his great-grandfather’s store. He could easily be talking about the whole country. This place is haunted not by love, but by horror, hate and slaughter.