Release: Friday, June 24, 2016
Written by: Gary Ross; Leonard Hartman
Directed by: Gary Ross
In Gary Ross’ new film, inspired by the life of Civil War medic-turned-rebel Newton Knight, the firepower has been upgraded from crossbows to muskets and bayonets, but both the fire and the power in the former Hunger Games director are absent in Free State of Jones, a comprehensive but long, bloated and surprisingly boring look at a turbulent period in the history of a rural Mississippi county.
The movie opens promisingly with a scene that puts us right in harm’s way alongside Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight. French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s unflinching camera plunges us into the nightmare that is war. Things get really nasty as we follow him back and forth between battlefield and MASH unit, carting off dozens of casualties, including young boys (represented by Jacob Lofland‘s gun-shy Daniel). We’re witnessing the Battle of Corinth, the second such violent encounter this area, a key railroad junction, has experienced following a siege earlier that year (1862).
This bloodbath is catalytic for our hero, a farmer whose idealistic extremism is matched only by the extremes of poverty he lives in, as he abandons his post and returns home to his sister Serena (Keri Russell), no longer feeling it is his duty to support a war that only the very wealthy seem to benefit from. It’s back on his farm where he meets and befriends Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave woman who has been secretly learning to read and who will introduce him to an underground society of runaway slaves and a handful of other disenchanted southerners.
The thrust of the narrative focuses on Newton’s transformation and how he becomes perceived by those he has left behind. His new duty is to inspire the downtrodden into action and to lead them in a movement that would ultimately establish south-central Mississippi as a place free from slavery and other forms of oppression and persecution. As the war continues the population in Newton’s militia increases as more Confederate soldiers desert their troops, though the disintegration of the fabric of honest American living continues.
Large crops of corn are being confiscated and sold by Confederates who have conveniently reinterpreted recent lawmaking as their entitlement to 90% of whatever they happen to find, leaving farmers with a stash that’s precisely the opposite of what the law provides for. There’s a sizable chunk of film spent on Newton trying to persuade Union forces to recognize Jones County as a free and independent entity. That comes and goes. Later still, after the war has ended, we see Newton continuing to push for racial equality as he takes up the mantle for Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), a former slave he befriended years ago in the swamps where the uprising began.
The screenplay attempts to develop Moses and Newton concurrently but that ambition also becomes its greatest downfall. Neither character is given enough perspective to seem truly changed. Ali gets a shade more attention later as we see him slowly succumbing to anger when violence is brought upon his family. Newton, seemingly the kind of individual who voluntarily shoulders more than his fair share of stress, chooses to help a dear friend in need. His dedication to the cause is consistent with many a vet who tragically struggle to leave the battlefield behind psychologically. You could consider his benevolence a symptom of some larger personal issue and it is in this regard his travails truly become compelling.
But before you start heading for the exits, we still need to finish talking plot. (I know, I’m in full-on ramble mode today.) While all of the aforementioned is being addressed on a timeline that stretches several long, grueling years — one look comparing McConaughey at the end of the film to his appearance at the beginning would be enough to confirm — there’s a bigger arc to consider: that of Newton’s great-great-great grandson, Davis (Brian Lee Franklin). In present-day Mississippi Davis is on trial for trying to marry a white woman. He himself is one-eighth black and therefore faces a five-year prison sentence for unlawfully cohabiting with a person of another race.
There are other things wrong with Free State of Jones, but among the more painful missteps is without doubt the editing, chiefly the decision to jettison the audience right out of the 1800s with a jarring flash-forward cut that jumps 85 years on the timeline out of nowhere. (Okay, so it’s not literally present-day Mississippi.) In the end the Knight case is tossed out by a Mississippi Supreme Court who think it’s better to maintain the status quo than to rewrite the rulebook. The courthouse scene, rather than tracing the legacy of Newton Knight, comes across as a superfluous and clumsy attempt at contriving a sense of epic-ness. (If you’re going to show us the significance of this story to Jones County residents of today, wouldn’t it be better to showcase the harsh realities of that court date in the closing scenes?)
When it comes to the reenactments, Free State of Jones is neither memorable nor utterly forgettable. And of course the question on everyone’s mind is how well its star fares. Well, the McConaissance hasn’t come to a grinding halt, but the party seems to be dying down. Still, this is a solid performance from an A-lister who just may be starting to experience the drawback of going on such a dramatic run in recent years, beginning with his humbled turn in Mud and “ending” with his crafty black-hole navigation skills in Interstellar.
Mbatha-Raw comes to mind next, with her quietly powerful and soothing presence as the self-educating Rachel. She’s a good fit for McConaughey on screen, even if the latter still casts larger shadows. Then there’s Mahershala Ali as the escaped slave Moses. Ali affects a stoicism that gets harder to watch as Confederate forces continue threatening (and carrying out) lynchings and dog hunts. Ali has presence here but he’s much more worth watching in Netflix’s very own House of Cards.
It’s hard to judge many of the supporting performances as the majority of them serve no greater purpose than to await their exit from the story. Death becomes the drumbeat everyone marches to. Invariably as time pushes on we say more goodbyes than hello’s and it becomes apparent towards the fraying ends of our patience that we were never meant to get to know the others. They exist simply to provide casualties. Or maybe it only seems that way since few beyond our trio of good guys have anything of significance to say or do.
In short, it becomes very difficult to care about a grassroots movement when all we see are actors standing around listening to a particularly high-profile thespian delivering his soap box speeches. Calling Free State of Jones a terrible movie is about as accurate as a bayonet, but it’s certainly forgettable and barely more than mediocre.
Recommendation: I still think Matthew McConaughey is the big draw here, and Free State of Jones‘ themes make it a fairly timely movie this July. Unfortunately the star doesn’t quite deliver like he has in recent films, though it’s hardly a turn for the worse. The story is simply all over the place and takes on too much to keep even the longest of attention spans focused on all that it has to offer. There is a lot of potential here and it’s so frustrating seeing it go to waste.
Running Time: 139 mins.
Quoted: “From this day forward we declare the land north of Pascagoula Swamp, south of Enterprise and east to the Pearl River to the Alabama border, to be a Free State of Jones. And as such we do hereby proclaim and affirm the following principles. Number one, no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich. Number two, no man ought to tell another man what you got to live for or what he’s got to die for. Number three, what you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest and there ain’t no man ought to be able to take that away from you. Number four, every man is a man. If you walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.”
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