Free State of Jones is a perfect example of a movie that struggles to reconcile its clearly fascinating true-life subject matter with its Hollywood narrative. Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, a man who begins the film as a nurse for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. However, he grows disillusioned upon seeing the bloodshed and his son among the dead. Knight deserts, forming a community with other deserters and runaway slaves and in response to the injustices committed by the Confederates, leads a rebellion against them.
While the opening twenty minutes of the film are excellently tense, highlighting the worst of the notoriously bloody Civil War, as Free State continues, it devolves into a cousin of Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot. This isn’t necessarily all bad. There is a joy to watching a grizzled McConaughey (the McConaissance lives on) and his compatriots outwit agents of the violent and racist Confederacy. However, in tackling such a dense period of history (which would be better suited fleshed-out in a HBO miniseries), writer-director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) can’t prevent his movie feeling like a visually pleasing college history lecture. This becomes especially apparent in Free State’s final third – where slavery is abolished, rich white landowners discover loopholes to allow them to keep exploiting their former slaves, black people receive a right to vote and the Ku-Klux-Klan is formed – all within ten minutes. The film addresses these key moments in history without going into them in any depth.
The characters, also, have little complexity. Surely, the most interesting part of Newton Knight’s story to a screenwriter would be his romantic relationship to the African-American Rachel (Gugu Mbatha Raw). Something reinforced by the fact that Jeff Nichols’ upcoming historical drama Loving solely focuses on the extreme controversy of an inter-racial marriage almost one-hundred years after Newton. Yet, aside from some hand-holding, the film barely addresses the two’s relationship. In fact, Knight spends more time in the film with his black friend Moses (House of Cards’ Mahershala Ali), and Rachel only pops up briefly whenever the plot demands.
As mentioned above, the film, in condensing the history on which its based, has pacing problems. These are amplified, however, by the addition of a hokey sub-plot, whereby the movie jumps 85 years in time to the trial of Newton’s great-great-great grandson. Despite his white skin, he is technically one-eighth black and is arrested for marrying his white wife. Although, I understand the inclusion of this narrative device (it adds supposed heft to Newton and Rachel’s relationship and highlights that despite our central hero’s best efforts, racism is a still prevalent), it jars for a number of reasons. Brian Lee Franklin as Davis Knight is noticeably poor, his story (although historically accurate) has almost nothing to do with Newton’s rebellion and its placement within the narrative is messy, causing the film to feel jumbled.
Despite writer-director Gary Ross’ noble intentions, some decent performances and a nicely gritty, at times, authenticity, Free State feels drained of energy and vitality. Its story is undoubtedly powerful but it has become stilted in its abridgment.