The McConaissance rumbles on with Free State Of Jones, a US Civil War drama that focuses on the compelling yet little-known story of defiantly righteous Mississippi farmer Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) and his armed revolt against the Confederacy. Opening to bullet strewn horror on a bloodied American battlefield, Free State Of Jones delivers brutal bayonet carnage as Confederate troops are cyclically gunned down whilst being methodically marched into the Union’s firing lines. The relentless butchery is a graphic reminder that over 600,000 people lost their lives in the drawn out battle from 1861 to 1865.
Upon witnessing the death of a young southern farm boy, Knight becomes jaded by gruelling battlefield life and seeks to bring an uprising against the corrupt local Confederate government. The impenetrable Jones County swamps offer an unprejudiced haven for army deserter Knight alongside an escaped band of knowledgeable plantation slaves. The ultimate encapsulation as a figure of defiance Knight leads a guerrilla militia (comprised of slaves, absconders and women) in search of political justice.
McConaughey’s radicalised hero is often weighed down by dryly extensive speeches which often lean on the grinding side of preachy. Gugu Mbatha-Raw continues to excel as an electrifying new talent, whose tender performance as the medical gifted slave Rachel adds a raw humane presence in an otherwise perturbed environment.
Interweaving two generational tales set 85 years apart, the tribulations of Knight’s rebellious regiment are juxtaposed with occasional flash-forwards depicting the miscegenation trial of Davis Knight (Newton’s great grandson) in 1948. This needless subplot contests the maternal parentage of Davis and whether any enforced racial segregation laws had been broken. The unnecessary and dispensable court room scenes throw the pace staggeringly off balance, lending a superfluous TV drama quality to an otherwise gruelling period piece.
Four-time Oscar nominee Gary Ross (Seabiscuit/The Hunger Games) tactfully utilises his meticulously detailed screenplay, which is based on a decade of independent research with input from pre-eminent Civil War scholars. Martha Hodes of New York University and Eric Foner of Columbia University offered key details on 19th century interracial sexuality and the Reconstruction era retrospectively. In a bid to cram in decades worth of historical events, Ross (who also directs the feature) loses the affecting narrative periodically throughout the two hour and twenty minute run time, lending a dull history lesson tendency that monotonously flatlines in the final third act.
Shot across fourteen locations around Louisiana, the lush pastoral surroundings add to the ever increasing sense of physical and emotional isolation, making the need for a neutral refuge (a free state) ever more pertinent. Dealing with heightening racial tensions and the formation of the barbaric Klu Klux Klan, Free State Of Jones is a punishing and unforgiving watch at times. Though tonally flawed throughout, this brutal piece of American history still deserves to be seen.
Free State Of Jones is in UK cinemas now.
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