‘Free State Of Jones’ Sparks Little Interest In Rebellion Tale (Movie Review)

free state of jones thumbIt’s a sad reality when you realize a film’s noble intentions can’t save it from the truth. There is an interesting story to tell in regards to Newton Knight and the men and women who joined him in rebellion against the Confederacy (and the Union) during the Civil War. Unfortunately, despite the efforts from a talented cast and the inherent emotions that come from seeing the rigors of slavery at its worst, Free State of Jones is a dramatically inert film with little to add to the cinematic landscape.



Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton “Newt” Knight and plays the part with the kind of intensity that requires occasional glassy eyes and burly bravado to remind you that he’s the man you’re rooting for. Beginning in 1862 after the Battle of Corinth during the Civil War, Knight is pushed to abandon the Confederacy and eventually unite groups of farmers, local slaves and other army deserters together for the sake of rebellion. They manage to take control of the area around Jones County, Mississippi and the film attempts to recount this portion of history along with Reconstruction in the South, following the end of the Civil War and enacting of emancipation.

Writer/director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) seems out of his depths here. Free State of Jones has enough material to make either a truly sprawling epic or a grand miniseries (perhaps the best way we could have seen this story be told), but ends up having put together a film oddly lacking thematic importance, strong characters or even a narrative through line that best encapsulates whatever story it is trying to tell. One can only imagine what the longer cut of this film would be like, but it would likely do little to strengthen the film overall, given how lacking it feels in dramatic heft.

The issues are easy to identify, but likely overlooked by some when it comes to seeing yet another film that makes sure you know how awful slavery is. Of course it was, but never mind the idea of seeing a story where McConaughey’s former Confederate soldier is the one to headline a tale of the true effects emancipation had on slaves in Mississippi. While it is typical to see a white savior character in the lead role for these types of films, at least you have the basis of history to back it up.  It is just a shame Newt has little for McConaughey to work with, so his self-serious emoting only manages to go so far.

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A decent supporting cast only has so much to offer as well. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) is a fine casting choice as Rachel, the former slave-turned-wife of Newt, but the movie does next to nothing to show a romance blossom between them. Even less can be said for Keri Russell, who portrays Newt’s first wife. Various character actors with beards pop up all over to supply support as different Confederates and allies, but it is Mahershala Ali (House of Cards) who gets the most interesting role as Moses Washington.

It is a shame he is merely a side character, but as a slave found in bondage (and you just know Newt is the only one who would eventually release him), there is enough seen in the character’s evolution that makes you wonder how a film featuring Moses in the lead role could have been different. As it stands, we have a lot of slow plot momentum that makes sure to fill in the blanks with a lot of text on screen (some bits of information that would be interesting to watch) and a completely unique side story that takes us into the future.

Set 85 years ahead of where we started, Ross hits us with a look at a trial involving Newt and Rachel’s great grandson Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin). He is on the stand for being an eighth black and marrying a white woman, which was still illegal in Mississippi at that time. This sort of story could be its own film or a wild epilogue to the miniseries version of Free State of Jones, but it instead comes off as an out-of-place choice that seems to double down on the white actors chosen to represent the perils built out of slave ownership and racism.


Given the state of today’s climate, Free State of Jones manages to be a film that practically overlooks what has and hasn’t changed, presenting something more akin to an Edward Zwick epic (think Glory) with the subtraction of better characters. A key speech in the film delivered by Newt perhaps best emphasizes a lack of awareness in what it means to properly build a character who can liberally use the N-word and make an affecting point.

For all its problems, Free State of Jones is merely a misfire, but not an ungainly one. The cast does the best with what they have and the film looks consistently good thanks to a steady hand on the part of cinematographer Benoit Delhomme. There is little flinching when it comes to some of the grislier aspects of war and inherent beauty found in shooting on the fields and swamps of their Louisiana locations. It is just a shame this film is not better.

With far more intrigue coming from the Nat Turner biopic that was the talk of Sundance, The Birth of a Nation, Free State of Jones ends up feeling like the film serving as a minor warm up that can be easily looked over. Not for a lack of trying, Ross did what he could to bring this story to life. Sadly, it gets too bogged down in the swampy waters that make for a film with little impact.

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