FREE STATE OF JONES Review

It is difficult to know where to begin when discussing the new Matthew McConaughey film, Free State of Jones. The film encompasses such a large canvas spanning nearly fifteen years from the heart of the Civil War in 1862 up until 1876 illustrating how, despite the war being over, many people-especially freed black men and women-were still fighting battles every day. If Free State of Jones is anything it is an admirable piece of work, a beautiful disaster in some ways, but more than anything Free State of Jones doesn't seem to know what to do with or how best to convey all that it so strongly desires to say. Writer/director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, and the first Hunger Games film) has created a two and a half hour epic of sorts, but in the end it still feels as if the movie has more to say. This isn't a good thing and it certainly doesn't do the audience, who have already sat through that extensive run time, much consolation if not some satisfaction. In many ways, Free State of Jones should have been an HBO or FX miniseries that simultaneously chronicled the life of Newton Knight and how he seemingly lived for others as well as his family tree that came about after having children with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an African-American who was once a slave. That the feature film version of this story even attempts to go back and forth between the actions of Knight himself as well as eighty-five years into the future where one of his great grandchildren stands trial for being a small percentage African-American and is thus charged with breaking the law for marrying a Caucasian woman is nuts. Sure, the parallels between what Knight was fighting for in 1875 and what his descendants were still dealing with in the 1950's is effective and certainly makes a strong statement about how little has changed despite a considerable amount of time passing-making the main idea of the movie more relevant than ever today-there just isn't room for it here. Going from the midst of the Civil War to our protagonist hiding out in a swamp, to him building a community that forms the basis of his rebellion and eventual secession from the Confederacy, and then going even further into the continued struggles during the Reconstruction period Free State of Jones leaves itself no room to breathe. That said, because there is so much there is a lot of stuff to find interesting as well. It is almost the opposite of that mantra that goes, "It's not what's being said, but how it's said," as Free State of Jones is more focused on what's being said given how it's being said is something of a mess.

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) leads a rebellion against the Confederacy in Free State of Jones
The opening scene of the film takes place on the battle fields of the Civil War where Ross keenly displays the senselessness and harsh realities of what war meant in those days. He photographs the men, some so young they barely have peach fuzz on their chins, as they march over a hill and into a battle where the likelihood of death was greater than that of survival. He focuses on their faces. These are faces that carry terror and fear in ways that transcend the viewers understanding of not just taking in the image we are being shown, but understanding the ramifications of the actions/choices these characters are taking/making. It is in these opening moments that I was already being pulled into the moment in time this story would be taking me to, entering the mindset of those who were being forced to fight a war many didn't see as their fight, and understanding what Ross might be trying to convey in regards to the fragility of life and how equal those lives were and still are. It is twenty minutes in, when Ross cuts to eighty-five years ahead of the events we were just watching, that I was taken out of an experience I was already fully immersed in. Though these scenes of the parallel narrative taking place in the fifties are both short and sparse they nonetheless break up the main narrative in unnecessary ways. We are then shown that Knight becomes a deserter of the war due to an incident concerning his young nephew, Daniel (McConaughey's Mud co-star Jacob Lofland), that places both he, his wife, Serena (Keri Russell), and their young son in trouble with the Confederate soldiers who still patrol Knight's hometown in Jones County, Mississippi. Side note: there is an interesting set of stories to be told of the lower-class women who were left behind during the war and how they were expected to "man" the house and the farms and how the governing law took further advantage of these individuals despite the fact their husbands were out fighting a war that was not their own. In the context of Free State of Jones though these injustices spur what Knight can't simply stand by and watch. His inability to let things go and remain hidden force Serena to leave him and for Knight to eventually flee to the swamps of Mississippi where he meets a group of runaway slaves, including Moses (Mahershala Ali), who he forms an unbreakable bond with.

Newton Knight is a man who comes to be known for waging a war on his own ideals and it is without a doubt that, according to McConaughey's portrayal, he was willing to do just about anything to help his fellow man given his advantages as a white male, but it is somewhat out of happenstance that Knight becomes this figurehead for the uprising that defines a major portion of the film. It is without question that Knight's compassion and strong ideas about the war led him to these situations that placed him as not only the core of the rebellion, but the emotional core for which we see all the world's problems weigh on his heart and mind. This is all to say that McConaughey is as good here as he's ever been despite the overall film feeling somewhat scattershot. McConaughey creates a complex character who is forced into and put in a position where he had nothing to lose and the Texas actor parlays this mentality with a certain crazed, but confident look in his eye. Knight is a man only trying to do the right thing and stop those lower on the totem pole from being taken advantage of by those who are allowed to remain seated on their high horses. Knight fought everyone's war who he saw wrong being done to-not just his war and not just the wars where he had something to gain. In fact, most of the fights early in the film cause Knight to lose the little that he did have. It is after losing Serena and becoming secluded in the swamps that Knight meets Mbatha-Raw's Rachel whom he eventually forms a relationship and starts a family with. The film takes its time developing the connection between the two and McConaughey and Mbatha-Raw have a nice, tender chemistry with one another that allows for moments such as when we should have seen a discussion about the hesitation to bring a mixed child into the world or when Knight welcomes Serena and his son back into his life and he and Rachel's home after they were forced to flee their own to go by on looks and understanding nods rather than lengthy scenes of dialogue. Though we see the physical toll the choice to lead this kind of life takes on Knight in McConaughey it is the debilitating emotional toll in McConaughey's performance that really hammers home the idea that no matter how hard he tries he can't seem but to keep fighting a losing battle. Also of note is Ali's performance for, despite McConaughey's rather phenomenal turn, it is Moses' similar arc that stays with you.

Newton Knight finds it hard to put down his arms when he sees so much injustice being done to those around him.
So, in being what feels like such a sprawling epic what is it that writer and director Ross wanted to say with the film? What was it that made him feel the need to bring this interesting and compelling true story to the big screen? It could have certainly been enough initially that it was just that: a compelling true story, but through the writing process one would imagine Ross locked onto a main idea or two. In prefacing that, what I can glean from the massive pool of story Ross conducts here is that of a law about how if a soldier owned twenty or more slaves they were excused from fighting in the war. Ross seems to have looked at this true facet of the story and latched onto the ridiculousness of the idea that people who didn't own slaves had to go fight and die so that those rich people who did could go on doing so and only become richer because of it. Insane, right? Stirring, huh? Exactly-Ross tapped into a new aspect of America's ugly past that allows for his film to exist in a world where films like 12 Years a Slave and the upcoming Birth of a Nation also exist. That the film only places Newton Knight at the center of the film because in those days it took a white man helping black people for real change to occur rather than making him something of a white savior only makes the picture more commendable. That the film goes into these unexplored areas that not all white southerners owned slaves, but rather that this practice was largely relegated to the rich elite and that despite the war and slavery ending things were still far from picture perfect for the newly freed blacks of the south is even more fascinating. It's that the film latches onto these events and gives us example after example of situations that represent these truths that it loses some of the effectiveness it initially holds in highlighting these facts. While I can understand why Ross felt the need to cover as much ground as he does here-making the point that never will everything be alright-he needed to find a way to say as much as he does in a more efficient fashion. It is that losing battle mentality of his characters that seems to have imbued itself on Ross as he feels the need to keep his movie going and going only to come to the same conclusion he would have were he to have given a more measured and confined telling of Knight's story.