Free State of Jones
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell,
It’s the first real film tragedy of the year. Director Gary Ross hasn’t made a film since he kicked off the first (and best) “Hunger Games”. Ross, also the director of such modern classics “Seabiscuit” and “Pleasantville”, hits the first stumbling block of his career. It’s almost, very good. “Free State of Jones” has numerous scenes, segments and even performances that are deeply moving, important aspects of history I haven’t seen on the big screen, with moments that left cold chills on my arms. Unfortunately, this epic scale civil war era film drowns in information. As he has in the past few years, Academy Award winner McConaughey delivers an immersive performance that is just one of a few reasons this crippled film is still worth seeing.
Before he deserted his post in the Confederacy, Newton Knight (McConaughey) was a nurse, tending to the many wounded. What he couldn’t abide was the army stealing from already destitute families raped of wars casualties, while rich men were not only exempt from fighting, but profiting off the weak. Knight, along with runaway slaves and increasingly more deserters, created a small army in the swamp, where the military were afraid to tread. Overtime Knight became one of Mississippi’s most wanted men. Even after President Lincoln emancipated the slaves, the transitional period, including the rise of the Klan, left Knight and his renegade army without a side, so they became their own state, with their own laws.
There are some stories and indeed portions of history, that simply cannot fit into a two and half hour feature film.
There are some stories and indeed portions of history, that simply cannot fit into a two and half hour feature film. The story of Newton Knight might have been better served as a miniseries, similar to Tom Hooper’s masterpiece “John Adams” (2008). Ross is not a director ill equipped to handle a large scale drama spanning decades. “Seabiscuit” which spans long sections of time and heavy character transitions, proves he knows what he is doing. “The Free State of Jones” appears to have gotten off track in the editing room and simply never recovered. It’s attempts to cover far too many themes (the war, interracial marriage, discrimination, a civil war within a civil war) and then wants to flash forward 85 years to show the implications on Knight’s descendants. There is a real editing failure here that’s catastrophic to the narrative.
Nicholas Britell’s original score might just be the year’s most complementarily paired music with image. There are battlefield moments that will be hard to erase from the viewer’s mind and gut wrenching speeches by Knight at heartbreaking funerals. When McConaughey preaches “you cannot own a child of God”, it doesn’t feel like a performance, it’s as if he has become his character. Raw (“Beyond the Lights”, “Concussion”) continues to build a distinctive and challenging feature film resume that grows more impressive with each performance. The film functions best when it offers up parts of history typically glossed over by Civil War movies. “Free State of Jones” aims to highlight the complicated process of transition in Southern states and the men and woman who opposed their regions values. It’s not a great film, nor is an easy sit, but it’s the subject matter and the dedication here that make it admirable if nothing else.
McConaughey and the historical subject matter deliver even with the editing and oversaturated information fails.