FREE STATE OF JONES: 1 STAR. “movie is done in by its own ambition.”
There is an interesting story to be told of the exploits of rebellious Mississippi farmer Newton Knight but “Free State of Jones” is not it.
The “action”—mostly raggedly bearded men sitting and speaking in lilting Podunk accents—takes place over the course of fourteen tumultuous years, from 1862 to ’76. When we first meet Knight (Matthew McConaughey) he’s a war nurse doing triage for Confederate soldiers blown apart by musket and canon fire. After a young relative is killed he goes AWOL, fed up with the brutality and the Confederate Army’s illegal pillaging of locals for supplies. Hiding out with runaway slaves he fights back, becoming a force for change and a champion of freedom for all men.
Intertwined in the narrative are the rise of the KKK, fixed elections, burned churches, surprise attacks and much more. Not content to tell the sprawling Civil War story “Free State of Jones” intermittently jumps forward 85 years to tell the story of a relative of Knight who was prosecuted in Mississippi for the crime of being 1/16 black and marrying a white women.
“Free State of Jones” aims to be an epic but in biting off more story than it can chew ends up a didactic mess, bereft of emotional content or revealing historical perspective. It feels as if it was shot as a mini-series and cleaved down to feature length. Parts seem to be missing, and by that I mean the interesting parts.
A surprise attack that is heavily featured in the film’s trailers should have been a rousing showstopper but instead comes and goes in the blink of an eye, barely raising the movie’s pulse rate. Better are the opening moments that effectively, if grimly, display the realities of face-to-face combat.
McConaughey has been on a remarkable career upswing of late but it feels like the McConaissance has hit a bump in the road. He’s less a character than a saviour, an empathic speechifying rebel with rotten teeth who embodies all that is righteous. He kills dogs and people and is a bigamist but he’s also apparently on the side of the angels and that is all we really get to know about him.
More interesting and human is Mahershala Ali as Moses, an emancipated slave who joins forces with Knight.
“Free State of Jones” has its rebellious heart mostly in the right place. In our time of continued racial unrest it is important to have a historical perspective but this movie can really only be described as problematic in some of the tone deaf ways it approaches its subject. For instance a speech that begins with, “Everybody is just somebody else’s n-word,” is meant to be rousing, a call to solidarity, but clumsily equates conscription with the plight of people taken from their homes, shipped to a new country and enslaved. Like the rest of the movie it means well but falls very flat. I gave it one star because it has aspirations to greatness and fails on all accounts. It’s done in by its own ambition.