Film Review: Free State of Jones

Matthew McConaughey brings a rumbling, rangy gravitas to Gary Ross’ rocky but propulsive civil-rights saga about the Mississippi farmer who led a revolt against the Confederacy.
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As the saying goes, history is just one thing after another. That’s not true of most historical films. Usually they use a traditional narrative of a hero’s triumph over adversity or tragic end with posthumous glory and dot flecks of history into it only as needed. The history is foregrounded in Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones, an ambitious effort that ropes a cross-racial love triangle and civil-rights saga into a no-holds-barred war film. It isn’t often that you see archival photography or onscreen credits about the Battle of Vicksburg in a Matthew McConaughey film with an eight-figure budget. That occasionally starchy approach leaves the human element lacking at times. But at least it’s all for a good cause: further undermining the myth of the heroic Confederacy.

Newton Knight (McConaughey, grizzled but warm) was a poor farmer in the Piney Woods of Mississippi. He started the Civil War fighting for the Confederacy before deciding to rebel against the rebellion. After a grisly opening scene showing a rank of Rebel troops being cut to pieces by musket fire and shrapnel, Knight appears as a nurse, hauling wounded to the rear. His sense of righteous anger, that remains at low burn throughout the film, flares up first when he pretends a wounded man is a captain to get him treated faster, and later upon learning about the “20 Negro Rule” (men who owned at least 20 slaves could avoid military service, benefitting the rich). After a particularly heartbreaking death, Knight deserts, his disgust billowing around him like a cape: “I’m tired of fighting for cotton.”

Ross, who also wrote and researched the fact-dense but personality-light screenplay, parses Knight’s transformation from backwoods farmer with an anti-authoritarian streak into insurgent leader with care, training its eye as much on the home front as the front lines. In Jones County, the farms are being stripped bare by venal Confederates—a departure for Civil War films which tend to only show the South being ravaged by invading Union troops, not their own. Like any good unwilling cinematic crusader, Knight isn’t one to let injustice stand, no matter how much he wants to be left alone. That soon leaves him hiding out in the swamp with a band of runaway slaves, further deepening a cleavage from the Confederacy and all its oppressive ways.

Free State of Jones hits some dramatic bumps here, when Knight begins gathering more deserters and forming a Robin Hood-like band of Southern swamp guerrillas. He also befriends a runaway who has the same spark of leadership, Moses (Mahershala Ali), and catches the eye of another, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). That element of the story is unfortunately put to the side in order to track Knight’s guerrilla movement, which eventually sees him and his racially mixed troops battling Rebel soldiers, hoisting the Union flag, and declaring their corner of Mississippi to be the Free State of Jones, a short-lived independent enclave of poor whites and freed slaves. Benoît Dehomme’s stark, spooky cinematography and Ross’ close-in focus help give these battle scenes a resonant punch.

Ross runs into trouble trying to keep too many things in the air at once, and his desire to pack as much as possible into this overlong film ironically leaves some moments and characters dramatically short-changed. McConaughey is a commanding presence, of course, pivoting seamlessly from wounded vulnerability to declarations of near-Biblical prophecy: “You can’t own a child of God.” Ali and Mbatha-Raw are given enough room to develop personas independent of Knight that there’s little hint of the expected white-savior complex. But except for Thomas Francis Murphy’s silky work as a sneering Confederate villain, few of the secondary characters register. Subplots like Knight’s living simultaneously with Rachel and his estranged first wife Serena (Keri Russell) that could have alone made their own films are only barely sketched in.

But what makes Ross’ film such an achievement is its understanding of the long arc of history. Instead of ending with the conclusion of hostilities, he pushes it further into the war that followed the war. By jumping straight into the domestic terrorism of the Klan during Reconstruction, the film doesn’t allow for any self-congratulatory back-patting. Ross pushes the envelope further by enfolding into the narrative a flash-forward to a hard-to-believe miscegenation case involving one of Knight’s descendants almost a century later.

Alternately hair-raising and clunky, Free States of Jones doesn’t pack its story neatly into a box. It allows things to flow and sprawl in ways that directly inform the present. The film doesn’t draw an explicit line from the scenes where Ali registers recently freed blacks to vote and modern-day voter suppression efforts in that same state. It also doesn’t have to.

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