Movie Review: Free State of Jones (2016)
“Based on the incredible true story.”
Free State of Jones (2016)
Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali
Synopsis: The story of 19th Century activist Newton Knight, the leader of an armed militia made up of deserters from the Confederate army and escaped slaves.
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The remarkable story told in Gary Ross’s Free State of Jones might be familiar to those raised in the States, but elsewhere it’s largely unknown. It begins in the midst of the American Civil War. Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey – The Wolf of Wall Street, Interstellar) serves as a nurse, collecting wounded men from the battlefield and ferrying them back to the medical tent where, more often than not, they must wait for officers to be attended to before receiving treatment. Dismayed by the revelation that anyone who owns twenty slaves is excused from service on the front line, Knight decides he has grown tired of participating in a ‘rich man’s war’ and takes the decision to desert.
After briefly visiting his wife, Selena (Keri Russell – Austenland, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), Knight hides out in swampland, where he makes the acquaintance of a handful of escaped slaves and establishes a community whose ranks are swelled by more Confederate deserters as the war slowly turns in favour of the Union. Under Knight’s leadership, this band of outlaws and runaways forms a militia to defend itself against the Confederates, and, when it receives insufficient support from the Union, even goes so far as to declare itself an independent state built upon the principle of equality for all men.
The Free State of Jones shares the same kind of sombre, over-earnest tone with which Spielberg’s Lincoln struggled back in 2012, and, for the best part of an hour, Ross struggles to involve us in its story. His manipulation of situations in order to present Knight’s desertion as a positive act – as evidenced by the pointless death of a fictional boy soldier under Knight’s protection – is a little too obvious for comfort, and it seems incredible that the comrades that he deserts would be so supportive of his decision, regardless of the principles behind it. Fortunately, things improve considerably in the film’s second half.
Every now and then, the storyline briefly leaps forward in time to look in on one Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin), Newton’s Great-Grandson, who is on trial for miscegenation. The transitions are clumsy, and would have better served their purpose as bookends to the main narrative, but Ross is determined to cram so much into an already overlong running time that the film is fairly skipping across the pages of history in its final half-hour, and much of the relevance of the trial would have been diminished.
Newton’s relationship with a slave girl named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the reason for the trial. Although still married to Selena, he fathers a child by Rachel, which means that the law considers Davis to be black, and his marriage to a white girl a criminal act. All of this makes Newton not only a deserter and adulterer, but a murderer, also, but Ross’s screenplay refuses to judge its protagonist. His mission to prevent us from losing sympathy for Knight, is aided immeasurably by a strong performance from McConaughey, who drawls his lines through tobacco-stained teeth and a tangled beard. He’s almost unintelligible at times, but projects just the right measure of quiet confidence and compassion to convince us that he’s a man to whom other men would turn for leadership.
Free State of Jones bombed badly at the box office, but this was due more to its subject, which no longer appeals to a mass audience, and poor marketing, than the quality of the picture. It’s not the great movie it clearly hoped to be, and the slack editing in the opening hour will surely be enough to see off many viewers, but the performances from a quality cast, and the masterful recreation of the era alone make it a movie worth watching.
(Reviewed 17th October 2016)