REVIEW: “Free State of Jones”

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There are moments in the historical war picture “Free State of Jones” where everything feels right – from its impassioned story to its artful attention to period detail. But then there are times when the flow of the narrative falls apart and the filmmakers seem to be biting off more than it can chew. Such is the dilemma with this riveting yet frustrating Civil War era mini-epic.

Oscar nominated writer Gary Ross pens the screenplay and directs this fictional story based on the historical account of Newton Knight, a southerner who led a group of deserters and escaped slaves up against the confederacy. Ross focuses on Newton and his impact on Jones County, Mississippi from the height of the Civil War through to the Reconstruction Era. Ambitious and  thoughtful, but a bit more than his film can handle.

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A perfectly cast Matthew McConaughey plays Newton. McConaughey almost naturally projects what you need from this character – scraggly unkept beard, tired and worn face, seamless southern drawl. We first see him performing his field medic duties for the Confederates at the Battle of Corinth. His war-weariness and disillusionment finally reach their boiling points and he leaves his unit. Wanted as a deserter, Newton is forced to hide in the swamps where he befriends a group of escaped slaves.

Their numbers begin to grow as more deserters break ranks and seek refuge in the swamps. Ross settles here a bit and builds some relationships particularly between Newton and a young house slave named Rachel (warmly played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw). We also see a growing unease as desperate Confederates begin ransacking local farms and stealing crops to supply the failing war effort. Newton’s newly founded militia fight back across southeastern Mississippi until the war ends in 1865.

From there Ross ventures into the Reconstruction Era which is where his story begins to lose its footing. The smoothly paced narrative gives way to a chopped up historical checklist of events that are interesting but terribly underserved. Post-war subjects such as local manipulation of slavery laws, freedman voter registration, KKK violence and democratic election fraud are addressed by title cards or brief segments. The story is constantly leaping forward in time never staying on a subject for more than a few minutes. It leaves the impression that Ross ran out of time, ran out of funds, or maybe both.

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It’s really a shame because Ross doesn’t shy away from the issues be it southern slave persecution or northern indifference. But he skims over the latter stuff leaning on didacticism over drama. The final third ends up being the film equivalent of history CliffsNotes. And there are instances where time could have been used better. We get a series of flash-forwards to a court room sequence some 85 years into the future. It’s not that effective and it took time away from more interesting parts of the story.

Newton Knight has remained a controversial figure. While Ross portrays his legitimate heroic side, he strategically prunes a portion of Newton’s personal life that you could call objectionable. After the war Newton lived on a farm with his wife AND his common-law wife (the Rachel character). He had fourteen children between the two women. This other layer of Newton would have been fascinating to explore. Then again the film struggles to cover everything it does include. But when it is on point “Free State of Jones” is a well-made film that’s both gripping and informative.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

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16 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Free State of Jones”

    • It’s such a hard line to walk when reviewing a historical movie. I honestly believe that filmmakers are not bound to history when making their movies as long as they don’t claim to be a historical account. That’s one reason I felt Selma fell a bit short. On the other hand you have movies like this one which is a fictionalized version of a true story. Often in these cases they choose to tell one side of the story which may fit a certain narrative or theme. They omit certain details of the historical account that muddy their message a bit. And often times the details they leave out would have made for much more compelling drama. In these cases I tend to struggle with sorting out where I stand.

      • I hear you, Keith. I guess consistency is the key. If the lens is tight and only shows one perspective, then that’s a decision. If it’s omniscient and the makers are trying to create a universal picture, then there are only so many story lines one can follow through with. I think epics have problems in this way. It’s easy to meander and lose the central message. I like historical films that create a convincing historical climate and tell a good story. That there are historical inaccuracies or omissions, I tend to forgive. ‘The Imitation Game’ comes to mind. It’s a great story and well acted. But there was more than Alan Turing in creating the thinking computer. People were omitted. The lens was on Turning and that creates a bias. Still love the movie!

      • Overall I think when the movie does have a compelling central story it’s easier to overlook their omissions. In fact I can completely forget about what they left out. I’m with you on historical films that can recreate the climates of the periods they are depicting. It is so easy for me to get lost in those types of movies. That’s one reason I’m really excited for Hacksaw Ridge tonight.

      • I’ve heard that too which really surprises me considering it is a movie about a pacifist. I have my own idea about what Gibson is going for and I’m anxious to see if he pulls it off.

  1. Hi Keith, I’m not as familiar w/ the history and to be honest, the film doesn’t really appeal to me. Well, it doesn’t scream must-see from your review either.

    • I don’t think it resonated with many people. It more or less bombed at the box office. I didn’t miss out by skipping it at the theater, but I will say I am glad I rented it. It’s worth watching and McConaughey gives a really good performance. But it hits this wall where it seems they ran out of time or money. The last act is so strangely structured.

      • Seems that McConaughey has been having a bad year w/ Sea Of Trees also bombed big time and the reviews are even more harsh than this one. I’m actually curious about Sea Of Trees just to see how bad it is, ahah.

  2. I skipped out on this one because of mediocre reviews. It’s good to hear that it’s at least compelling, but also a shame to find out that it does what too many historical biopics have been doing recently: skimming over the more complex and interesting portions of the story.

    • It’s definitely worth checking out Brett. But while it is good it is also a bit baffling. The final third are just clips of story that just glances over so much material.

  3. Thought this movie was okay. It was acted well and told a very unknown civil war story that I’ve never heard of, but there was just too much to tell that it sort of skipped around bits pieces. Free State of Jones should’ve been a mini-series to fully tell the story it needed to tell. Good review, though!

    • Thanks Jason. It definitely seemed to bite off more than it could chew. By the final act it was flying through some interesting historical points but never taking time to explore them.

  4. Found this one to be a huge mess storywise but those performances sure helped. McConaughey very nearly managed to right this ship on his own but I’m in agreement with you about the film partially feeling like a historical CliffsNotes. And those flash-forwards to the trial in the ’50s (I think?) were just incredibly jarring.

    • Yes! The flash-forwards didn’t work and were a distraction. I was really onboard with this up until that final third where it started frantically skipping from point to point.

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