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Directed by: Gary Ross
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali and Keri Russell
Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a disillusioned Confederate soldier and Mississippi farmer, deserts the Confederate lines during the Battle of Corinth in 1862 to return the body of this teenage nephew to his mother for burial. Once home he sees first hand how the Confederates treat the small farmers and slaves and decides enough is enough. He soon bands together a rag tag militia to fight the Confederates and forms the Free State of Jones in Mississippi.
I’m guessing the vast majority of the Free State of Jones’ European audience will not have even so much as a passing knowledge of Newton Knight. I know that I certainly did not and for that very reason the Free State of Jones is a truly interesting film, it tells a remarkable story – a poor white farmer allying himself to the even poorer African American slave community, a man who rounds up a bunch of white men prepared to fight against the tyranny of the slave system. It can’t be said more plainly than this: this is a story that America needs right now. You can almost feel the weight of moral righteousness weighing it down. Unfortunately, the Free State of Jones feels this too and chokes, missing the chance to be something more than just a historical biopic. While not a bad film, far from it in fact, it seems to suffer a crisis of identity more than once during its nearly 2 and a half hour running time. Instead of laying its cards on the table as a commentary on the futility of war, or on the barbarity of slavery, or the vile hatred born of prejudice, it decides to touch on all three and fails to adequately address any one of them.
Its primary failure comes in its attempt to be all things to all men. Instead of focusing on one aspect of Newton Knight’s doubtlessly colourful life, this film covers an immense period of 14 years that includes the American Civil War, the emancipation of the slaves and the granting of the right to vote to the African American population. It’s a broad range of topics and as opposed to using a scalpel to examine the issue, the filmmakers use a butter knife instead. There’s nothing explosive in the Free State of Jones and as the film flits from one topic to the next any meaning or social importance is lost. It shouldn’t be just an interesting story, it should be an important one. Schindler’s List or Mississippi Burning this film is not but it earnestly strives to be so.
Opening with a well-realised battle sequence that tries to emulate the shock and awe of Saving Private Ryan’s opening 20 minutes, the Free State of Jones gives us a pondering mournful McConaughey reflecting on the futility of war. Told by a comrade, Will, that his terrified teenage nephew died with honour, he retorts quite succinctly, “No Will, he just died.” It stops just short of superimposing a few lines of a Wilfred Owen poem on screen for extra emphasis. I’m not saying that to be flippant, those opening few minutes are probably the best in the movie as it presents us with something visceral and real: heads being blown apart, legs being crudely severed by canon fire, bodies being trampled in the mud by terrified soldiers as their comrades drop all around them. Those few minutes are quite tough to watch and if ever there was proof that Matthew McConaughey is the greatest actor to shed tears then this is it. Watching him lament the loss of his nephew would draw a tear from a turnip!
The film soon turns again as, on returning to his home and family in Jones County, Mississippi, Newt finds it a totally different place than when he left. Farms have been picked clean by the ravenous Confederate soldiers taking anything they can eat or sell as a tax to fund the war effort. Women and children are starving and Newt soon finds himself the go-to guy for the women of the man-less farms. Free State of Jones soon develops into quite an interesting Robin Hood type of adventure with Newt living in the relative safety of the Jones County swamps, stopping the raids on farms and organising the farm hands into groups to take back what was taken from them. If Kevin Costner walked by in a boiled leather jerkin with a mullet you wouldn’t be surprised. As the film progresses from Newt Knight the deserter to Newt Knight the outlaw it becomes increasingly more vocal about class and race, McConaughey wondering why “poor men fight rich men’s wars” and why, when you boil it down, the Civil War is really only about cotton and who picks it. At this point there is more than a hint of Alan Parker’s fabulous Mississippi Burning, McConaughey channelling Willem Dafoe’s colour-blind FBI agent during his many whispered southern drawl speeches. It’s all very earnest and intense and in the hands of a lesser actor would have come off as hammy and stilted.
The film is not all slow, mournful dirges. At more than one point in the film McConaughey has to act with brutal force and it is terrifying – his killing of a Confederate officer is exceptionally shocking due to its graphic presentation. Although he is a man who has turned his back on war, McConaughey’s Newt is not one to shy away from killing. Just as you are getting a grip on this, the tone shifts again as interspersed throughout the film are some very heavy handed and distracting flash-forwards to the late 1940’s about a man on trial. As these grow in regularity we realise that this man is Newton Knight’s distant grandson and is on trial because he is the product of Newt’s mixed-race relationship with Rachel, an African American slave. Though white in colour he is classed as Negro due to Mississippi’s 1% rule. This court case on its own would have made for a very interesting film, using flash backs to the 1860’s instead of the other way around. However, hopping back and forth between some very important themes grows tiresome after a while.
Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, The Hunger Games) seems a little confused by the subject matter or how it should be delivered. Is it a history lesson, or a Robin Hood-esque adventure or a far more serious commentary on race and society? Though a capable director, he doesn’t seem to know which direction the film should take and so it soon becomes a very ho-hum middle of the road historical biopic, elevated from the realm of TV movie by a very capable Matthew McConaughey. There’s a reason the poster is almost entirely filled with McConaughey’s longhaired, scraggily bearded Newt Knight – he is the selling point. McConaughey seems eager and well able to play the southern everyman and delivers more than one powerfully emotive speech. He’s a preacher in disguise. His love affair with Rachel, his African American common law wife is wonderfully realised. It is tender and full of friendship and easily one of the best elements of the film. While probably not going to attract another Oscar nomination for him, McConaughey proves that the McConaissance is still in full flow.
Ultimately the Free State of Jones is a missed opportunity. It is not a bad film, not at all, it is very entertaining and full of strong performances, especially a frizzy haired Mahershala Ali as the freedman Moses. It is solidly made and looks wonderful, McConaughey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw both give strong, centred performances but it is let down by a lack of direction. It doesn’t know what it wants to be. In trying to be earnest and righteous it loses focus. The Free State of Jones could have done well with a bit of trimming. Like Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic, which addressed only a few short months in that President’s life, The Free State of Jones could have fared better if it had focused on one aspect of this remarkable character’s life.
The story of Newton Knight definitely deserves to be told, alongside his contribution to the American Civil War and his belief that all men, free man or slave, are created equal is as vital today as it was then. I fear though that this overly sentimental film is not the ideal way of telling it. It’s not a bad film, it just doesn’t realise how good it could have been.
Free State of Jones is out now. View the trailer below.