Free State of Jones features a handful of moderately powerful moments that don’t add up to a powerful overall experience. Writer/director Gary Ross’s screenplay bites off more than it can chew, resulting in a frustrating narrative structure that softens the most potent material and injects confusion at inopportune times. Newton Knight’s story is undoubtedly deserving of big screen treatment, but even at 139 minutes Free State of Jones feels like a Cliff’s Notes version of his life. That said, the cast is fantastic and the wealth inequality themes of the story ring true as ever today.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Knight, a Civil War-era farmer and Confederate medic in Mississippi. After his young nephew (Jacob Lofland) is tragically killed in battle, Knight deserts the war and seeks refuge in the swamp lands. There he meets other deserters as well as runaway slaves, including Moses (Ali) and Rachel (Mbatha-Raw). Together they form a rebellion against the Confederacy and wealthy slave owners, waging guerilla warfare from the swamp and in small towns. As the group gains members and prominence, Knight emerges as a leader ahead of his time, seeing all men and women as truly equal.
The opening fifteen minutes of Free State of Jones are some kind of intense. Ross puts us right on the battlefield with Knight to relive the horrific brutality of Civil War-era battle, complete with pigs consuming the intestines of a fallen soldier and lingering shots of a blood-soaked and active medics tent. It’s a visceral, impactful sequence in a film that should have had more of them. Ross greatly slows the pace from there and inexplicably cuts back and forth to scenes taking place eighty five years later in which a man is on trial for being 1/32 African-American and married to a white woman. It’s obvious from the outset the man is Newton’s son, Davis (Brian Lee Franklin), but Ross doubles down on this storyline as exposition for events the viewer has already figured out will happen. As a result, the segregation case carries little weight and doesn’t work as a parallel thread. Knight’s speeches, while well-written, still feel familiar (a film like Selma set a high bar for these types of scenes) and never hit the emotional chord one would expect from such heavy and historically-important material. That is an issue that permeates the whole film.
It’s no fault of the cast, which is uniformly terrific. McConaughey is always McConaughey to a certain extent in his roles, but here he feels authentic and heavily-invested. He’s given numerous opportunities to shine in his strongest effort since Dallas Buyers Club. Gugu Mbatha-Raw also excels as Rachel, a former slave and eventual love interest of Knight’s. The screenplay mercifully doesn’t play up the romance, but Mbatha-Raw’s understated performance is effective in conveying her feelings and support for Knight. Mahershala Ali and Keri Russell both turn in fine supporting work.
Free State of Jones is a strange historical film case. It undoubtedly has value as a record of a man’s efforts that most people probably don’t know about. However, it never becomes as engrossing as its first fifteen minutes when it certainly has plenty of opportunities to. Perhaps it’s the fragmented narrative structure or the limp ending. It just never quite crosses over to join the greats of this genre, despite Ross’s notable and determined undertaking.
Studio: STX Entertainment
Length: 139 Minutes
Rating: R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images.
Theatrical Release: June 24, 2016
Directed by: Gary Ross
Written by: Gary Ross. Based upon the story by Leonard Hartman.
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry