FREE STATE OF JONES

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Gary Ross

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Kerri Russell, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Thomas Frances Murphy, Jacob Lofland, Sean Bridgers, Christopher Berry.
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Hollywood has given us lots of great dramas set against the backdrop of the Civil War, including Oscar winning classics like the epic Gone With The Wind; Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves; Lincoln; Robert Maxwell’s Gettysburg, the superb and meticulous reenactment of the war’s bloodiest battle; Cold Mountain; Glory, about a regiment of African-American soldiers; and of course The Good The Bad And The Ugly; and there was also the television miniseries North And South. And while Free State Of Jones is set against this familiar backdrop, it tells of a little known episode of American history from the period.

This is the first feature film script from Leonard Hartman, and is based on actual events and has been meticulously researched. We are given lots of sepia toned photographs and intertitles that explain much of the history of the period.
The film opens in 1862 with some graphic battle scenes that will remind audiences of the harrowing opening from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. A platoon of Confederate soldiers march toward Union troops and are felled by a combination of rifle fire and cannon fire. We see bodies litter the battlefield. We see doctors amputating limbs in makeshift operating rooms, with the wooden floors awash in blood.
Newton Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey) is a Confederate soldier and nursing aide who grows disillusioned with the futility of the war and the waste of young lives. Particularly when his teenaged nephew Daniel (played by Jacob Lofland, who appeared opposite McConaughey in the superb Mud) is killed during one battle. Knight deserts the army to return Daniel’s body home.
When he arrives back in Mississippi he returns home to his wife Serena (Kerri Russell). Their young son is ill, and he finds help from slave girl Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, from Concussion, etc). He also finds an ally in runaway slave Moses (Mahershala Ali). And before long Knight finds himself leading a militia comprising other deserters and runaway slaves. He leads a series of reprisal attacks against a corrupt Confederate government whose troops are looting and pillaging local farming families. Confederate captain Elias Hood (Thomas Frances Murphy, in a role originally intended for Brendan Gleeson) uses brutal tactics to try and break the militia, forcing Knight to use guerilla tactics to fight back.
Knight is a controversial figure of defiance and a leader in the fight for equality and justice in the post Civil War period. He also teaches Rachel to read and write, and a relationship develops between the pair.
The film spans the period between 1862 and 1876 and also covers the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. But it also leaps forward to the 1940s and a trial where one of Knight’s descendants, who is legally declared 1/8 negro, is on trial for marrying a white girl. These scenes are rather unnecessary and irrelevant to the central story line, and are a little confusing given that they are introduces with little context. They illustrate how the entrenched attitudes of the American South are slow to change and show how the fight for justice and equality still continue long after the end of slavery. But they pad out the film’s running time to an overly generous 139 minutes.
McConaughey, who has undergone something of a career renaissance in the past few years, is good here and immerses himself into the physically demanding role of Knight. Mbatha-Raw brings compassion and empathy to her sympathetic role as Rachel, the former slave girl who finds a better life through Knight’s support.
The director is Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, and the first film in the Hunger Games trilogy) but his direction is measured and his pacing a little sluggish. The film is tonally uneven, and much of the material seems repetitive. We don’t get a lot of insight into the characters.
Free State Of Jones offers up a history lesson, but it is didactic and prosaic, lacking genuine excitement and suspense. However there is some superb cinematography from Benoit Delhomme that enriches the material and gives us some sweeping vistas. This could have an inspirational epic along the lines of Braveheart, but it is somewhat disappointing and falls short of greatness.

★★★

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