With “Free State of Jones”, “The McConaissance” has hit its first bump in the road. The wheels haven’t completely flown off of this historic drama, but they are a bit wobbly and aren’t exactly being sold as advertised. In fact, when word gets out that there are more thrills and action in a weekend Civil War reenactment, it’s going to be difficult for this movie to make any returns on its $65 million budget.
Director and screenwriter Gary Ross doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie he wanted to make. There’s nothing wrong with telling a historic story with only a few moments of action, but “Free State of Jones” is put together like a documentary, complete with real still photos and text detailing the Civil War timeline. There’s also very little character development, which only leaves a viewer horrified by what they’ve seen without a real emotional investment in who it is happening to.
“Free State of Jones” begins in 1862 during the Battle of Corinth in which Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) was a medic. Events during the battle and the revolting “20 Slave Law” become quite enough for Newt and he deserts the Confederate army, returning home to his wife, Serena (Keri Russell).
Newt is eventually tracked down for desertion and after stopping Confederate soldiers from raiding a neighbor farm, he escapes to the swamps of Jones County, Mississippi. He joins a camp of escaped slaves, who are led by Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali). Newt also meets Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and after learning his wife has abandoned their farm, he begins a controversial relationship with her.
With an almost two and a half hour runtime, one would think that Newt’s army of deserters and escaped slaves trying to push Confederate forces out of Jones County would be more than enough story to keep “Free State of Jones” moving. However, out of nowhere, Ross moves the story ahead 80 years and into a Mississippi courtroom. It’s an effort to show just how long that deep seated racism went on in Mississippi and it’s initial vagueness is meant to keep you in suspense, but it’s so poorly constructed and hamfisted into the movie that it’s easy to see where it is going.
When the fighting stops, “Free State of Jones” grinds to a halt. The final third is a snooze with only one tragic moment having any emotional impact. The movie also falls victim to having what seems like three or four endings.
One of the biggest problems with Ross’ screenplay is the two women in Newt’s life are reduced to ogling, bit players with no ability to help themselves. It has taken two talented actresses in Keri Russell and Gugu Mbatha-Raw and given them nothing to do.
Mahershala Ali, known to most as the slick talking Remy from “House of Cards”, has the largest character arc as he grows from illiterate, freed slave to voter registration activist. He’s a seriously talented actor and the scenes he shares with McConaughey’s Newt are the highlights of the entire movie.
Matthew McConaughey, as he’s done for the last five years, gives “Free State of Jones” his all, but the pace and story drag him down. Nobody acting today does righteous troublemaker quite as well as he does and his conviction regarding the role of Newton is clear. This is also the first time that his real life, personal bathing habits benefit his role as he is perpetually covered in dirt.
Thankfully, “Free State of Jones” smartly avoids the tiresome trap of “white man shows up to save the black man.” The story, while not shying away from the grotesque history of slavery, has an overall message of equality and people keeping the things they have earned. This is a story that should be loaded with heart, but it becomes a procedural march to the end. It’s unfortunate that an extremely important, timely, and relevant message regarding the history of the United States is lost in the delivery.