Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali
Directed By: Gary Ross
Running Time: 139 minutes
Our Score: 2 out of 5 Stars
American Civil War movies are either critically claimed masterpieces (“Gone with the Wind” or “Glory) or the bane of moviegoers existence (“Gods and Generals” and “Gettysburg”). “Free State of Jones” fall somewhere in between. There’s enough entertainment and magnificent acting to keep it afloat, but too many nauseating history lessons and a lack of narrative to make it watchable. It may get some future use in high schools across the country, but could also be a punishment for a rowdy classroom.
“Free State of Jones” follows Newton Knight (McConaughey) a MacGyver of 19th century America. He’s a nurse as battles wind down, a soldier when war flares up, a farmer at home, a blacksmith and carpenter when the script calls for it, and many other things. Knight watches too many of his friends, family, and countrymen die for a cause he doesn’t believe in. He views the Civil War as a rich man’s war being fought by the poor residents of Mississippi. So he goes AWOL, evading troops on the lookout for the fresh deserter.
Knight goes into hiding in the swamps where he befriends runaway slaves and slowly starts attracting other deserters to his camp. Over time, he collects more slaves and deserters to help form his own militia. Their core belief isn’t anti-Confederate, but more around the belief that no army or government should steal from the people and that the people have a right to what they create with their own bare hands.
The movie takes place from 1862 to 1867, which already has any historian reading that scratching their head. The Civil War ended in 1865. Un-effectively, “Free State of Jones” is like two different movies. One about the small rebellion against Confederate beliefs and the fallout of the Civil War in the South with Knight having to constantly defend the rights of his African American friends.
Narratively, it’s a mess. At no point does the movie blatantly or subliminally promote a unique theme or message. “Free State of Jones” is another; white man comes to save the day for minorities, history lesson from Hollywood. The movie highlights the corrupt system in place after the war, which prevented minorities from voting in the political process. That could be a link or statement of affairs today in this political climate, but I’m not willing to give the creative team behind “Free State of Jones” that much credit.
It’s a well shot movie that captures the essence of war, but McConaughey is the true highlight of the movie. He works well with the emotional and physical toll of war as he progressively becomes older in “Free State of Jones”. But I can’t help but dislike his character for some of the selfish plot points in the movie. It doesn’t help that the movie constantly jumps forward around 80 years into the future where Knight’s relatives are going through a legal battle. It’s another speed bump that slows down the overall pace of the movie.
“Free State of Jones” is definitely a unique tale for the Civil War that highlights the divide in a traditionally proud part of the country. Even today, people still sport Confederate flags and re-enact famous battles. There’s something interesting that can be said about how war can divide even the most patriotic of people. But “Free State of Jones” doesn’t want to talk about that. It seems more obsessed with messages we’ve heard before and reminding us that slavery is still evil.