Based on the plot synopsis and trailers, Free State of Jones seems like a historical epic pandering to the Academy Awards. While its subject matter may do just that, this Civil War-set drama is really a passion project for director Gary Ross, who spent over two years researching and preparing for the film. It’s rather tragic that Free State of Jones isn’t a better film — and it’s Ross’ fault.
Free State of Jones centers around the true story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Civil War deserter who leads a rebellion against Confederate soldiers to proclaim a somewhat independent county in Mississippi. The second half of the film follows Knight after the Civil War ends; he enters a common-law marriage with former black slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and struggles to help his black friends maintain their emancipation during the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. These two halves are intercut with a trial 85 years later, as Knight’s great-grandson is arrested for marrying a white woman (since he is technically 1/8th black).
I went into the theater with very low expectations and was pleasantly surprised to find that the film is only sub-par instead of truly terrible. The first half carries the momentum of the film, as we are slowly introduced to all the characters and feel impassioned by their sympathetic struggle against unfair taxes and conscription. After Jones falls to the side of the deserters, the film suddenly grinds to a halt. The timeline 85 years later doesn’t help, since it is meant to show the continuing effects of racism, but instead feels unclear and random.
We are then thrust into the relatively unexplored area of Reconstruction. Lynchings were up, black men were denied the right to vote and the Ku Klux Klan essentially ran the South. This is where a bad tonal shift starts to take place. The first half almost entirely ignores race relations, which wasn’t necessarily bad for the movie. The second half is clearly about the black struggle for freedom and for rights. And yet, we’re still stuck with a white protagonist and his story. Although he is a true ally and friend, the second half depicts his struggle to help his black friends and family, and what their sacrifice does to him as he tries to prevail spiritually and emotionally.
The focus shifts a little bit more to Moses (Mahershala Ali, House of Cards), a good friend of Knight’s who fought alongside him during their rebellion. We follow his perseverance and determination to register all the black men in the county. His reunion with his family after the war and his passion for representation is admirable, and makes me wish that we could have more of him. Similarly, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) gives a lovely performance as Knight’s love interest, Rachel. Soft-spoke but strong-willed, Mbatha-Raw is the true heart of the movie, and shines in small scenes like when she breaks down after sleeping in a feather bed for the first time.
Ali and Mbatha-Raw both have great screen presences, and therefore deserved more screen time. Especially since Ross’ portrayal of Knight and McConaughey’s performance make Newton a rather bland character.
Newton Knight is an interesting character with a rich background, but Ross romanticizes him since he is set on creating an idealistic, liberal hero. He becomes entirely one-note and stagnated in his moral certainty throughout the film. Though his speeches and goals change, Newton himself doesn’t. His view of black people and slavery may become more determined, but even from the beginning of the movie we see him defend the blacks against the whites and treat both races with equal respect. Michael Phillips from the Los Angeles Times refers to Newton as an “Oskar Schindler,” although Schindler’s character development is clear and understandable in Schindler’s List.
This may simply be my preconceived opinions of Matthew McConaughey, but I cannot take him seriously in many roles. In Free State of Jones, it is no different. Although he gives it his best effort, I still hear Matthew McConaughey’s deep Southern drawl as he slowly drags through passionate speeches so audiences understand that what he’s saying is important. His role in Dallas Buyers Club was a bravado performance that was deserving of an Oscar, because he lost himself in that role. He wasn’t Matthew McConaughey; he was immersed in Ron Woodroof. Unfortunately, he did not carry that performance into Newton Knight.
The movie ends anti-climatically, since the last half meanders on without having a driving force behind it — Knight becomes disillusioned after the death of Moses and we get some final thoughts displayed on screen. I’m not sure what could have saved this film, since the narrative and tone is all over the place instead of a true character study of Knight, which Ross might have intended. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme doesn’t help, and squanders the beautiful settings and costumes with out-of-place close-ups and shots that belong on the 1970s Roots miniseries.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
Despite director Gary Ross’ passion and great supporting performances, Free State of Jones cannot rise above a muddled script and glaring racial contradictions. Perhaps if Ross hadn’t been so passionate about the subject matter, he would have looked at his film with a more critical eye and realized that a main character without flaws is not the true Newton Knight. In conclusion, do we really need another white savior movie that is only sub-par? At least Dances With Wolves had great cinematography and music.