Movie Review: Free State of Jones
Matthew McConaughey raises a slave army and an earnest eyebrow as little-known rebel Newt Knight in director Gary Ross’s well-intended Civil War drama that feels stiff in its Sunday best
Free State of Jones
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell
Directed by: Gary Ross
Running time: 2hrs 19 mins
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
Nothing augurs tragedy like good intentions. And Free State of Jones is positively burdened by a desire to enlighten.
A Civil War movie about a lesser-known chapter from the South, Free State of Jones focuses on the personal rebellion of one man: Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a poor white farmer who enlisted in the Confederate Army, but eventually walked away from a cause he couldn’t support to raise an army of fellow farmers and fugitive slaves.
It’s 1863. We know it because director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabuiscuit, The Hunger Games) fills the screen with the four-digit number in the opening cards. It feels entirely out of place, a graphic assault plucked from a thriller and thrown above the swamps of what is supposed to be Mississippi. But that’s just the beginning of Free State’s problems.
Other snags include the very premise of a Civil War movie about a white male hero from the South, a plot that jerks awkwardly between 1863 and 1948, and Matthew McConaughey playing another soulful outsider with a smarmy grin and a preacher’s gift for soap-boxing.
The Oscar-winner from Dallas Buyer’s Club has perfected his look of earnest conviction, whether he’s driving a Lincoln, or taking on the role of a Confederate soldier who ended up championing his cause.
Ross said he wanted to bring Knight’s story to the big screen because “he fought a rebellion on behalf of the have-nots, the poor and dispossessed… and was such a progressive, forward-thinking individual — totally unique in his own era.”
Indeed, listening and watching McConaughey play the rebel-rousing ‘traitor’ feels like watching a modern-day preacher address the camera with lens-savvy intuition. He knows just when to bend an eyebrow for emphasis, and when to gaze downward with Abe’s honest resolve.
It’s such a “performance” that it never feels truly real. The whole movie goes to esthetic extremes to look authentic, borrowing the slow camera moves and long follow shots from Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. Yet, for all the effort, the movie feels plodding and fake.
The time jumps certainly don’t help matters much, suddenly plucking us from one era’s pace and shoving us into another. Ross wants to give us a 20th century coda to prove how timely the story is, and how slow America is to change: Newt’s great-grandson looked totally white, but he was thrown in prison for marrying a white woman because he was part black, the result of Newt’s common law marriage to a black woman named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
The romantic connections, whether it’s the relationship with Rachel or his first wife Serena (Keri Russell), never really land any emotional punches either.
Ross seems obsessed with keeping the scale intimate – and being historically exhaustive at the same time. This movie doesn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation. It keeps chugging forward, then backward. And then forward again into the Reconstruction phase – when the South really went south, expressing bitterness in defeat and spawning the Ku Klux Klan.
Ross has to be congratulated for rounding out the white point of view by showing dissent within the Rebel ranks, offering long explanations about why the white farmers were angry enough to raise arms against their own side, but it comes at the expense of developing other characters – notably the African-American ones.
Mahershala Ali (House of Cards) oozes screen presence, but the script doesn’t exploit his charisma by giving he and McConaughey scenes that chisel out their relationship to one another, or their larger place in history.
The characters feel shackled by earnest intention, as though Ross and the entire cast showed up every day to set wearing their Sunday best — heavily starched garments with little give, worn for show.
It’s just what happens when Americans make movies about the Civil War: They fall over themselves to make it feel holy, definitive, important, something akin to religion. With Matthew McConaughey as the fiery pastor, Free State of Jones proves a rousing sermon and well-researched lesson in history, but it’s trapped in the church of Americana, where the walls remain a curious shade of white, everyone carries a gun and God’s presence is bold assumption.
THE EX-PRESS, June 24, 2016