Film Review: ‘Free State of Jones’ can’t help but feel like a botched history lesson


free_state_of_jones_ver2There’s a moment about midway through Free State of Jones that pretty aptly sums up why this film is shockingly tone deaf and just does not work. Actually, there’s a few of those moments, but I want to focus on one in particular. Matthew McConaughey‘s protagonist uses a certain racial slur as a way of trying to link his fellow white revolutionaries in solidarity with the black ones also following him. It’s literally a white man telling other white people how rough black people have it, but focused entirely on the white person. Now, I know director and co-writer Gary Ross has his heart in the right place, but it’s a lack of execution that torpedoes this movie early on.

The Civil War is a subject that sometimes seems to struggle when translated from the history books to cinemas, and frankly Free State of Jones will do nothing to turn that tide. The battle scenes here in this flick are solid, but it’s two hours and twenty minutes long, with long stretches where nothing happens, an odious amount of useless on screen text, and a time jump that does little more than pad out an already too long film. McConaughey does his best, but he can’t even come close to saving Free State of Jones from itself. This would be awards vehicle is a wreck from early on, opting to be a poor history lesson instead of a successful movie. Alas.

Based on a true story, this is essentially (mild spoiler alert) an almost two and a half hour prequel in spirit to later this year’s biopic Loving, in that it goes from a southern group rising up against the Confederacy to a look at post war racism and how that impacted the 20th century.

In a bubble, that’s perfectly fine and could make for an excellent film, but this isn’t the film to do it. Anyway, we follow Newt Knight (McConaughey), a medic for the South who deserts during the Civil War and attempts to live a simple life back home in Mississippi, one that is short lived. Confederate soldiers don’t look kindly upon him, other white men who don’t take up arms, and of course any non white Newt associates with. Before long, he’s become determined to fight back, something that costs him the love of his wife (Keri Russell) and son. Newt leads his fellow anti slavery southerners, as well as former slaves like Moses (Mahershala Ali) into the swamp, becoming a pain in the Confederacy’s ass.

From there, we see how he established the town of Jones as a free state, how this group worked before and after the war, as well as the impact that his common law marriage to freed slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) would have on a future kin of his. Yes, this movie jumps more than once from the 1800’s to the 1940’s for a trial. You read that right.

1*G48--VhtAwdfe6fX9HHmgAMuch of the cast here is wasted, but there’s no arguing that Matthew McConaughey isn’t very solid. He brings a welcome intensity to his role, especially since almost everyone else seems to treat the production like it’s a mediocre made for television project. McConaughey isn’t given a whole lot to do besides continually march somewhere and cause havoc, but he does show in the quieter moments why he’s such a good actor. Unfortunately, while he gets plenty of screen time, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is absolutely wasted in a thankless role. Hell, so is Mahershala Ali, though at least he’s given somewhat of an arc. That being said, Ali and Mbatha-Raw deserved better. The rest of the cast, in addition to an also under utilized Keri Russell, include the likes of Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Joe Crest, Brian Lee Franklin, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, and more.

I expect better from Gary Ross, honestly. Though his direction is visually crisp and uses cinematographer Benoît Delhomme to good effect, he’s got an albatross of a script, credited to himself and Leonard Hartman. Ross sometimes wants to take pages out of Roland Emmerich‘s Revolutionary War epic The Patriot, and that’s not necessarily the route to be going, especially mixed in with the lectures and sermonizing. The tone deafness of almost exclusively focusing on the plight of the white man here, mixed with the utterly unnecessary subplot in the 20th century, just makes this a chore. Throw in the liberal use of on screen text (seriously, the final half hour alone features more than most prestige biopics would ever dream of using) and Free State of Jones has way too many problems to even think about recommending.

Occasionally, Free State of Jones works as just a violent war movie, and it even sometimes gets a bit emotional, whether it’s the death of a character or where the climax winds up, but the good definitely does not outweigh the bad. Too often, this film goes down an unneeded road or opts to just do something highly questionable. Unless you’re a die hard McConaughey backer, this isn’t anything to go out of your way for. It’s the summer blockbuster season, so you certainly can do worse at your local multiplex, but trust me when I say that you can do better as well. Free State of Jones is highly mediocre and highly disappointing, which is an unforgivable combination, plain and simple.

GRADE: (★★)