Free State of Jones Review

Ridiculously long and unfocused, Free State of Jones fails to stand up to better Civil War movies.

By the end of the year, many entertainment writers will probably be blaming the success of the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave for the slew of television shows and movies about the Civil War. Granted, there are a lot of important and worthy untold stories from those times, so one can’t hold too much ill will towards a film like Free State of Jones for trying to tell another one.

Written and directed by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games), this one tells the very specific story of Mississippi farmer and Confederate medic Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), who turns his back on the rich slave owners who sit in their mansions while men die on the field to protect their right to slave labor. After the death of his nephew, Knight goes AWOL into the swamps of Mississippi with a community of escaped slaves, soon to be joined by other disgruntled Confederate farmer/soldiers, as they establish their own community and way of life. It’s evident that Ross spent a lot of time researching the life of Knight and the times, but it’s a subject that’s likely to have limited appeal to those who already feel that they’re being hit over the head with all these history lessons.

Just as you’re getting into the opening Civil War recreation and McConaughey’s turn as Knight, the film suddenly cuts forward over 80 years and we’re in a courtroom where a young white man is being tried for marrying a white woman because he has a black descendant. By the third time we return to this trial you’ll realize that the man being tried, Davis Knight, is Newton’s great grandson, and from there, it’s easy figure out where his relationship with a freed slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is going. Even so, we’re forced to sit through another 90 minutes of dull character-building before it gets to the inevitable resolution we figured out 90 minutes earlier.  

Clearly, this is a vehicle for the incredibly talented McConaughey post-Oscar, and he brings a certain amount of weight and gravitas to the part, but not quite on par with an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis or others that may have gone a bit further to lose themselves in the role. Most of the rest of the cast isn’t at the caliber to be in scenes with McConaughey other than Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who does have a more pivotal role in this than she does in Birth of a Nation (out later this year), and Mahershala Ali as Moses Washington, one of Newt’s cohorts who becomes a powerful voice among the African-American community after abolition, which ultimately leads to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan.

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Ross has proven himself as a solid filmmaker, but he goes for a naturalistic approach with this movie that doesn’t quite work. This includes a minimalistic score, mostly consisting of traditional music of the times, and relying on the natural sounds of the environment. It’s an effort that would normally be appreciated when you have dialogue and performances engaging enough not to rely on the music, but in this case, the movie really needed that added boost to make the viewer even remotely care about the characters.

Because Free State of Jones is trying to cover so much time from the war through abolition and the reconstruction, it ends up coming across like an unfocused history lesson that feels like it goes on for much longer than it needs to. By the two-hour mark, you’re already wondering whether Ross’ film editor had anything constructive to add (or rather, remove) from the mix.

In fact, in a year when we’re getting the far superior Birth of a Nation, it’s odd this is even getting any sort of summer release where it’s likely to get lost in the shuffle of higher profile sequels. That’s fine, because it’s not nearly as good as it should be with the pedigree of filmmaker and star involved, and it’s a shame since Ross isn’t the most prolific filmmaker, and this feels like a let-down compared to previous efforts.


2.5 out of 5