What does it take to create a Sundance Film Festival sensation? The alchemy depends on such a specific and unpredictable combination of factors — the buzz, the talent, the mood of the industry and, yes, the quality of the movie — that it's a fool's errand to try to replicate them. That hasn't stopped any number of filmmakers from attempting to make the next "Little Miss Sunshine," the next "Precious," the next "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Nor has it kept the journalists and buyers in attendance from trying to lay claim to the same discoveries.
This year's festival has produced a rare reversal of this phenomenon: No film here wants to be the next "The Birth of a Nation." Writer-director-star Nate Parker's powerful, problematic slave drama drew a rapturous reception at last year's Sundance (full disclosure: I was a contributor to that reception), where it was lauded as a breakthrough for an industry still reeling from the #OscarSoWhite controversy. It opened months later to more mixed reviews and intense controversy over the rape accusations leveled against Parker during his college days.
This year's festival-goers will almost certainly be more cautious about anointing a new favorite. Still, that didn't keep a tide of critical hosannas and wretchedly premature Oscar predictions from streaming out of Saturday night's Premieres screening of "Mudbound," an ambitious, superbly acted epic of racial discord from the director Dee Rees, whose accomplished feature debut, "Pariah," screened at Sundance in 2011.
Adapted from Hillary Jordan's novel, "Mudbound" sketches a vivid, dirt-under-the-nails panorama of 1940s Mississippi farm country, centered on the tightly bound interactions between a white couple, the McAllans (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan), and the Jacksons, a family of black sharecroppers (played by actors including Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan and Jason Mitchell) who work on their farmland. Rees intersperses the voice-overs of multiple characters throughout, a technique that takes some getting used to. But it also pays off with a richly nuanced understanding of the sheer pervasiveness and variety of racist attitudes in the Jim Crow era.
However it fares from here, critically and commercially, "Mudbound" will not be this year's "The Birth of a Nation" — a reductive comparison that says more about the dearth of black stories told by black filmmakers than it does about either movie. As in "The Birth of a Nation," the anger surging beneath "Mudbound" is palpable, but if Rees' film is a richer achievement than Parker's, it's because she knows how to modulate and complicate that anger.
The chief complication here is World War II, and if there's something schematic about the way Rees cuts between Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) serving their country abroad, her point could hardly be more bracing: In a world where not all men are deemed equal, war is the great equalizer. So, too, is post-traumatic stress disorder — an affliction that, as both Ronsel and Jamie can attest, is entirely colorblind.
The toll of war on the male psyche also figures heavily in "The Yellow Birds," a somber, harrowing Iraq War drama that premiered Saturday in the festival's U.S. dramatic competition. While there are innumerable echoes here of American war films, from "Full Metal Jacket" to "The Hurt Locker" and "The Messenger," perhaps the most direct analogue here is Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah," which used a soldier's sudden disappearance to deliver a withering assessment of America's motivations for invading Iraq in the first place.
Although not as politically charged as "Elah," "The Yellow Birds" also takes the form of a detective story, albeit one in which the mystery is as drearily protracted as it is ultimately unpersuasive. A soldier named Daniel Murphy (Tye Sheridan) has gone missing in Iraq, to the despair of his mother (Jennifer Aniston, who also served as executive producer). Only Brandon Bartle (a fine Alden Ehrenreich), Daniel's closest Army buddy and the movie's protagonist, knows what really happened. He reveals it in a series of sluggish, calculated flashbacks that are meant to explain Brandon's own hopeless descent into PTSD, but instead wind up stalling the movie's momentum.
"The Yellow Birds" is the latest feature directed by the French filmmaker Alexandre Moors, whose superior debut, "Blue Caprice," screened in Sundance's Next section several years ago. In both films he displays an artful eye and a keen fascination with process, showing how a seemingly ordinary chain of events can precipitate terrible acts of violence. What worked so harrowingly well in his first film causes him to falter in his second: a principled urge to explain the inexplicable.