A film review by Craig J. Koban July 1, 2016


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.  

The 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. 



As 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. 

Ross 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 identity.  It 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.


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