FREE STATE OF JONES ½
R, 139 mins.
2016, R, 139 mins.
Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight / Keri Russell as Serena Knight / Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Rachel / Mahershala Ali as Moses Washington / Jacob Lofland as Daniel / Sean Bridgers as Sumrall / Bill Tangradi as Lt. Barbour / Thomas Francis Murphy as Elias Hood
Written and directed by Gary Ross
Gary Ross’s noble minded, ambitious, but ultimately meandering and ill focused fact-based Civil War drama FREE STATE OF JONES tells the fascinating story of an American farmer turned Confederate soldier Newton Knight that – after serious ideological differences with the Confederacy – went AWOL and formed a mixed-race commune (including ex-Confederate soldiers and slaves) in Jones County, Mississippi. This very commune ultimately waged a rebellious war against the Confederacy.
There is no
doubt that Ross’ film has an epic period and storytelling scope, not to
mention that it thoughtfully speaks volumes towards Civil War and post-war
racial strife and the different kind of economic war between the 99 per
cent and the one per centers during that era (both themes baring obvious relatable fruit
to modern audiences). Unfortunately,
too much of FREE STATE OF JONES is an elephantine slog to sit through;
it’s an extremely slow moving film that fumbles around in desperate
search for connective narrative tissue.
film does have a positively gripping opening.
Newton (a never been dirtier and grungier looking Matthew
McConaughey) is introduced as confederate nurse that quickly tends to the
needs of wounded soldiers on the combat field.
Realizing that he has had perhaps enough of the hellish nightmare
of war and genuinely disagrees with the Confederacy’s mandate, he
decides to desert with his young nephew during the midst of a
particularly heated and violet skirmish with Union soldiers.
Newton miraculously makes it out alive, but loses his nephew in the
process. He manages to make
it home to his wife (a somewhat underused Keri Russell) and informs his
sister of her son’s tragic demise.
Moving forward, all Newton wants to do is retire to a quiet life of
peace on his farm, well away from the ravages of a war that is claiming
the lives of millions.
he re-acclimatizes himself back to farm life, though, Newton begins to see
evidence that not all is well on the home front as well.
It becomes abundantly clear that the Confederate army has been
pillaging local farms for all of their food without a care in the world
for the residents’ wellbeing, which springs the frustrated and angry
Newton into immediate action. He
promptly begins to lay the seeds of an underground rebellion against the
Confederacy, the latter led by General Hood (Thomas Francis Murphy, in pure one note
moustache swirling mode), whom seems hell bent on locating Newton and
making him pay for abandoning the Confederate army and cause.
Newton even begins to welcome in slaves into his flock, like Rachel
(Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Moses (Mahershala Ali), and little by
little Newton begins to form a grander vision of uniting
multiple races together to strike at the very heart of the Confederacy in
a series of clandestine guerrilla attacks that are primarily designed to
show them that he as his allies truly mean business.
is no stranger to revisiting the past in his films (PLEASANTVILLE and
SEABISCUIT) and he certainly infuses FREE STATE OF JONES with a rough,
rugged, and wholeheartedly immersive visual aesthetic that fully
grounds us during its era in question.
The film’s period specific production design and artifice are resoundingly assured and authentically spot-on. Complimenting the film’s stellar look is in how well it
frames Newton as a truly fascinating historical figure of great interest.
As we see Newton segue from disillusioned army medic to an equally
disheartened deserter and finally to a teeth clenched, fist waving, and
resolute rebel leader we begin to see him as a fairly inspirational figure
that was, quite frankly, ahead of his time in terms of his inclusive
attitudes to African Americans. Newton
wasn’t all about racial harmony, though, as his vehemently led attacks
on the Confederacy also spoke volumes towards his stance that the richest
in the country were maliciously exploiting those that are desperately
trying to earn ends meet. For
a small swampland residing clan to willfully wage a physical and
psychological war against an unfathomably large and lethal Confederate war
machine was, quite frankly, pretty damn ballsy.
For as much
respect as I had for what FREE STATE OF JONES has to say about its
contemplative themes and ideas, Ross’ film is
disappointingly all over the map in terms of struggling with a uniform
simply, at times, tries to be too much, which is really exacerbated by
Ross’s peculiar inclusion of a rather awkwardly shoehorned in subplot
that takes place eight decades after Newton’s rebellion, during which
time one of his apparent male descendents is trying to save the legality
of his marriage under the Jim Crow Laws of his time, which forbid
interracial marriage (he married a white woman, but despite outwardly
looking white, he may legally be part black due to a well held notion that
Newton fathered a child with Rachel).
Now, this whole historical tale within the Civil War set tale is
beyond enthralling, but it really has no place being in FREE STATE OF
JONES, mostly because it deserves its own film altogether.
The editorial choices made by Ross and company – which sort of
hastily and arbitrarily makes the film jump back and forth in time without
any rhyme or reason – hurts the film’s momentum and flow.
FREE STATE OF
JONES’ overall pacing is borderline glacial at times.
The film takes an awfully long time to build towards its
action/battle beats with an awful amount of speeches, sermonizing, and
morale platitudes being elicited by key characters to the point where the
film felt like a dry history lecture than an emotionally involving film.
Ross’ indifference and reticence with harnessing the film’s
bloody skirmishes as well holds its grandeur back (he has always been a
finer director when honing in on intimate character dynamics).
The first half of the film is sluggishly inert and then picks up
some steam during its middle sections, but its third act (taking place
during the post-war Reconstruction period) gets regrettably lost as it
aimlessly looks to patch together far too many subplots into a unifying
whole. By the time the end
credits rolled by I was more exhausted than deeply moved by the film’s
schizophrenic examination of its core ideas.
What does FREE STATE OF JONES really want to be about when all is
said and done? Paradoxically, for a film that professes to be anti-war, it
just happens to also be very pro-gun and advocates a strong by any
violent means necessary prerogative of maintaining your livelihood.
Performances greatly elevate the film above being a regretful write-off. McCanaughey is reliably stalwart, commanding, and relentlessly intense as a man filled with righteous anger that will stop at nothing to correct social, political, and economic wrongdoing. He’s the mesmerizing hook and epicenter by which all of the other equally accomplished performances fall right into place, especially Mbatha-Raw’s exquisitely rendered turn as Newton’s co-conspirator turned common-law-wife. Ali is also in fine form here capturing the quiet and simmering passion of a proud man that could break at any time (he’s serenely powerful in the film). FREE STATE OF JONES is an admirable historical drama that tackles worthy themes of race, inequality, economic disparity, and how war fundamentally changes both individuals and society as a whole (and not often for the better). Unfortunately, Ross’ banal treatment of these themes and the film’s genuine lack of cohesiveness and symmetry holds it back from being the type of dramatically stirring period piece that it urgently wants to be.