Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Mahershala Ali, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell
Director: Gary Ross
Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a medic in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. When his son dies in battle, Knight, already disillusioned about the cause of the war, and sympathetic to the plight of African-Americans, becomes a deserter and rebel. He forms a band of outcasts, poor whites, runaway slaves and other rejects of society. Like Robin Hood and the Merry Men, they steal from the rich and distribute among themselves and count among their allies’ people whose crops and houses are stolen from them by the Confederate Army. Knight’s rebellion also takes a personal character when he falls in love with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) a slave woman.
Free State of Jones has the very unusual problem of having a very romantic story, with a romantic hero, but conducted in a style that is not romantic. The film has the bleakness and stateliness of melodramas like Road to Perdition that clashes with the idealism and sentimentalism of its story of poor whites and African-Americans banding together against the racist landowning aristocracy of the South. It lacks in humour and visual invention and its period detail, compared to the work done for Spielberg’s Lincoln is distinctly unconvincing.
The American Civil War has the same resonance for Americans as the Partition does for Indians. This was a conflict that shaped the nation that came after, divided families and communities and whose memories continue to shape present day political discourse. For a long time, movies about the Civil War tended to be overly romantic to the Confederates. Free State of Jones, to its credit averts this and is incredibly unsympathetic to the South, the war it declared on the North and the false delusions its soldiers fall into after being defeated. The movie’s second half shows scenes depicting the Ku Klux Klan, America’s most notorious domestic terrorist organisation. Indeed the main redeeming feature of this film is that it is highly educational about why even after slavery was abolished in America, African-Americans continued to live as second-class citizens until the ’60s.
Indeed it’s an irony that Free State of Jones becomes a better movie in its second half than the first, and the real meat of the film is showing the aftermath of the Civil War. The first section is a poorly constructed melodrama that introduces the characters and actions in a sketchy fashion and without depth and feeling. Newton Knight also comes across in some scenes as a benign white hero to lead the African-Americans to the promised land and moments like that come off as being a little too on the nose. There is also the problem of music. The American Civil War had an influence on several popular folk tunes, and yet aside from one stirring moment where John Brown’s Body plays, the movie labours under a very boring and forgettable score that unsure about the film’s status as Epic or Oscar melodrama settles in a middle ground that is the worst of all worlds.
The actors do the best they can with the material. Matthew McConaughey had a good patch of interesting films lately, and now he once again steps in a major role, and he’s quite good in the part but the material doesn’t let him sink into the character. The other actors do well, with Mahershala Ali being especially impressive as a runaway slave farmer. Free State of Jones is a wasted opportunity. The material is rich, the case is good and the story has the familiar elements of a good historical film, but the lack of real feeling lets the film down at the end.
The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society...