Directed by Gary Ross
Written by Gary Ross
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, and Kerry Russell
Runtime: 139 minutes
When telling a historical story, the aim should be to make it informative yet entertaining, capturing more of the emotion than the dry facts yet still keeping the story as true as possible. Many historical epics have accomplished this, like Schindler’s List, Glory, Gandhi, Lincoln, Lawrence of Arabia or ones based on more recent history like Argo or A Beautiful Mind. Still others, like Gods and Generals, Copperhead, Pearl Harbor, The Patriot and Cleopatra throw either fact or interest to the wind and fall flat on their budgets. That’s where we find Free State of Jones, the latest attempt by Gary Ross to prove he has talent, which just doesn’t work.
The story is based on the true story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a poor Southern farmer who deserted the Confederate army after deciding he wasn’t going to fight for the rich men anymore. He was sheltered in a swamp with runaway slaves and befriended them, slowly building a community of runaways, both slaves and AWOL soldiers. They started to fight the Confederacy when the soldiers started imposing and abusing new tax laws and taking the poor farmers of Jones County, Mississippi for everything they were worth, subjecting them to worse poverty and likely death come the winter. In armed rebellion against the rebellion, they seized a sizable chunk of territory and held it on their own, even declaring independence after they were shunned by both the Union and Confederacy. During this time, Knight fell in love with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a house slave for the local plantation owner, with whom he had a child, despite being married to Serena (Kerry Russell) with whom he also had a son.
Gary Ross’ screenplay is flat and largely uninteresting despite the fascinating subject matter. He seems more concerned with getting a Cliff’s Notes version of history than he is with actually getting the audience to care about any of the characters. What should be a rousing story about someone overcoming their learned prejudices and forming a desegregated community long before any of that was legal and trying to put forward the idea that people are people regardless of color becomes a history book segment turned into a movie. Ross is so eager to pack in all of the facts that he disregards character or personal development (which he similarly did with The Hunger Games, just taking pertinent scenes and filming them, leaving out any of the characterization or emotion that was in the book). The only thing missing was a History Channel style voice-over, but Ross supplanted that with text at the bottom of the screen filling in gaps in his story. Then, about an hour in and with no warning or sense, we flash forward 85 years (thanks to some text on the bottom) to a courtroom where one of Knight’s descendants is on trial for marrying a white woman, as he is 1/8th black (without his knowledge) he has violated the state’s segregation laws. Ross brings us to that courtroom again later, but it’s shoehorned in with no real purpose. If that was the story he wanted to tell, he could have at least used it as a framing device, started with it, then flashed back to Newt’s story then back to the courtroom. Instead it’s just inexplicably there for really no purpose other than to tell us that it happened. It’s jarring and useless because we barely care about Newt and his revolution let alone a descendant that we haven’t seen or know much of anything about making it impossible to care about the trial even slightly.
Ross doesn’t do much as a director to lift the material above his hit-the-high-notes screenplay either. His shots look good, sometimes even downright beautiful, and he evokes the period well but his battle sequences, while vivid and realistic, are never given the importance or air of danger they should. His quiet moments are more montage and glossed over so he can get to another McConaughey speech about freedom that rouses the other characters but not the audience. His stale point-and-shoot style is punctuated with hand=held camera work that is intrusive and often provides us with unnecessary and choppy close-ups that he probably thinks adds a documentary feel to his film but it really just calls attention to the fact that very little is happening aside from a choppy camera move.
McConaughey, for his part, is earnest in his portrait of this interesting man but he’s a bit too self-important here. He fills Newt with an air of humble import and tenacity that is admirable but little more than typical biopic stuff, quite unbecoming of his recently revealed talent. He doesn’t give us the quiet intensity of Mud or the knowing importance of The Wolf of Wall Street. What he gives is more the line-reading of The Lincoln Lawyer, devoid of much more inspiration than his paycheck and a potential Oscar nomination simply by virtue of this being a period piece (but more likely this will be forgotten in less than a month).
Free State of Jones should have been at least good if not better. The subject is interesting and with a capable writer and director, the film could have been so much more. Instead, we’re left with a film that limps along over nearly two and a half hours that gives plot points with no story, characters without characterization and ultimately comes to nothing more than a waste of time and money. Ross is a filmmaker without vision or apparent purpose, which he reminds us of every time he makes a movie. Free State of Jones wants to be important, but it’s really just a dud.