“Free State of Jones”

LOUISA:  2 STARS  MATT:  1.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Free State of Jones” should be required viewing for all students. Students of history? No, students of the art of filmmaking. This well-intentioned mess of a movie may feature the compelling historical figure Newton Knight, but the film’s overall poorly executed storytelling ultimately sinks it to the depths of blah-ness.

Matthew McConaughey plays the Southern farmer Knight, and he (as expected) delivers — but just barely. There are also some decent turns from his supporting cast: Mahershala Ali (Moses), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Rachel), Christopher Berry (Jasper) and Keri Russell (Serena). These actors deserve a better movie.

The film tries to be too much and consequently loses its focus from the get-go. Is this a thinly veiled propaganda piece, a violent (and gory) Civil War battlefield action movie, a heartfelt family drama or a tragic exploration of American history? I guess the answer is yes to all of these. If there had been a tighter focus this would’ve been a pretty effective movie. As it stands, “Free State of Jones” is utterly confusing and just way too long.

There are repeated melodramatic ‘Oscar bait’ scenes of McConaughey delivering teary-eyed, stirring (read: booooooring) solo speeches about inequality in the most manipulative manner possible — and our audience ate it up. Even worse, this mess of a movie tries unsuccessfully to blend a 1960s racial court case (in a paltry attempt to make it relevant with African American struggles today) with Knight’s backstory. It’s confusing, ill-conceived and not well done at all.

In what should’ve been a compelling, rousing rallying cry for justice, I was instead left weary, tired and ready to leave the theater at the film’s halfway point. Pay attention class: this is ineffective filmmaking 101. It’s such a shame because the story is a good one. This is a fascinating historical figure and his story needed to be told, but this movie provides a terrible vehicle for doing so. I recommend this film only to folks who really, really love American history. Otherwise, it’s not worth your time.

MATT SAYS:

“Free State of Jones” is an incoherent, interminable movie that should have been a television miniseries. The film tries to do far too many things and tell too many stories. At a running time of 140 minutes, it’s sure to leave audiences exhausted.

Starring Matthew McConaughey‘s sneer, “Free State of Jones” tells the true story of Newton Knight, a man who deserted the Confederate Army during the Civil War and created his own militia of other deserters and freed slaves who fought back against the Rebs and their predations on poor local land owners. Sounds interesting, right? That part is . . . kind of. But then the movie also spends much time on the post-war aftermath of Newton and his group after the war, and the history of freed slaves in the South after the war, and the way that rich Southern men were able to keep their abandoned plantations after the conflict ended, and the travails of Newton’s descendants, and, and, and.

The trailer would have you believe the film focuses only on Newton’s deserting the army and building his own fighting force — an interesting story to be sure. If writer-director Gary Ross had focused his story on that alone, it might have been a better film. As it exists now, however, it’s essentially an extended lesson that would serve as a good way to teach this material in high school history courses, but that’s about it. It’s hard to understand why the movie was released in the summer.

Even the usually-reliable McConaughey was disappointing in “Free State of Jones.” His range was limited to somber or angry and sneering. The supporting actors were generally decent, but given few opportunities to shine.

If you want to learn about another side of the Civil War, its terrible consequences, and the grave injustices visited on supposedly “freed” slaves after the war ended, then this would be a good rental. But don’t expect to be entertained.

 

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