FREE STATE OF JONES
Director: Gary Ross
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Sean Bridgers, Christopher Berry
Matthew McConaughey continues his run of playing heavy, important roles that try to challenge him as an actor and make us forget about his rom-com days. In Free State of Jones, he takes on Civil War figure Newton Knight. Knight was a Southern Confederate soldier who makes the radical move to desert his camp and bring the body of his nephew, Daniel (Lofland), back home. Deserters can be arrested for leaving their camps if found. After dealing with some family issues, he continues to find himself on the run hiding out in the middle of the woods with a group of escaped slaves, including House of Cards‘s Mahershala Ali. His company of deserted soldiers and slaves continues to grow and includes many women and children along the way looking for their freedom from the confederacy. The rebellion is known as the “Freemen of Jones County” who are looking to overthrow the Confederate Army’s presence in the south. As this is transpiring, Newton falls in love with Rachel (Mbatha-Raw), a maid who works on a cotton plantation and is aiding in their escape. Over the years she goes on to bear many of his children.
Free State of Jones is a slight change of pace for writer/director Gary Ross. He’s a four-time Oscar nominee thanks to his work on Big, Dave, and Seabiscuit. His last film was the first The Hunger Games entry, so he isn’t a total stranger to war themes or true stories. Ross attempts to focus in on a true Civil War story that may have been forgotten about in the history books. It’s based on events spanning 1862-1876 but falls into the common trap of trying to cover too much ground without any specificity or depth to the story and characters. This also leads to a lengthy runtime of 2 hours 19 minutes. Around the 45 minute marker, the story drastically shifts to a courtroom setting 85 years later picking up with Knight’s great-grandson who’s on trial for miscegenation. It’s one quick scene and cuts back to the main storyline. It’s so jarring that I couldn’t stop thinking about the randomness of it, and then kept waiting for Ross to return to it. He eventually does, but those scenes are too few and far between to get invested and feel so out of place compared to the rest of the movie. He may have attempted to show how the racial divide continued on years later, but it just feels all too unnecessary. The overriding question is if he is a direct descendant of Rachel’s or his first wife, Serena, played by Keri Russell.
The opening sequence starts off strong showcasing the bloody brutal war zone with Newton bringing body after body into the medical tent. I had a flashback to M*A*S*H and realized that I would rather be watching that film. There are bloody limbs, sunken in/shot off faces, and pigs eating dead bodies. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it provides an interesting contrast to the rest of the film. Once Newton escapes, it takes on a quiet, minimalistic approach which drastically slows down the pace to a screeching halt. It takes far too long to find its footing which happens when the rebellion finally comes together. Even then there isn’t a strong enough drive or intrigue with the characters to keep you connected. The relationship between Newton and Rachel feels very average as Ross doesn’t give Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Concussion, Beyond the Lights) any substance to her character outside of telling us that she can’t read or fire a gun. I felt the same toward Keri Russell who has limited screen time as Serena. She disappears through a majority of the first half when she decides to leave him, but ultimately comes back into the picture and is left to help raise Newton’s children with Rachel.
After a while it just feels like a standard cable movie/mini-series going from one Civil War milestone to another. The second half of the film features a variety of archival photos and date stamps signifying important events. They are used minimally in the first half and then all of a sudden its rapid fire as if Ross didn’t know how to finish the movie or felt the need to give us more context. Like the courtroom drama scenes, it’s another big inconsistency in the film that is hard to gloss over. Matthew McConaughey does as best as he can do going all scruffy and dirty to play Newton Knight. There’s a fire within him even if there isn’t any other dimension outside of that. Frankly, the whole cast suffers the same fate. Gary Ross has brought an important story to movie audiences and has us thinking about race plays in today’s society, but he needs to have better focus. Maybe The History Channel will have some documentary type programming to give a clearer insight in the real Newton Knight.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Only for history buffs who may not already know this Civil War story.
RATING: 2 out of 5 TICKET STUBS