Free State of Jones is well-crafted and tells a worthwhile story, but makes for a better history lesson than moviegoing experience.
Free State of Jones tells the tale of real-life historical figure Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Mississippi farmer who serves in the Confederate army during the U.S. Civil War. As the war rages on, Knight grows increasingly disillusioned with how the Confederacy caters to the interests of wealthy Southerners by passing laws favoring families that own multiple slaves - at the same time, forcing working-class people like himself to "donate" their food, livestock, and their very livelihood to further the Confederacy's cause. After a personal tragedy strikes him on the battlefield, Knight deserts his army position and winds up helping a small family protect what little they have left - making himself a target for the Confederate army, in the process.
Knight, with help from such locals as a house slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), finds refuge in the swamps of Jones County - where he hides with a group of escaped slaves, including one named Moses (Mahershala Ali), and is eventually joined by other Confederate army deserters, more runaway slaves, and poor Southerners on the run. As their numbers grow, Knight leads the members of his community in an armed rebellion against the Confederacy and declares their land the "Free State of Jones". However, when the Civil War draws to a close, Knight comes to realize that his own war has only begun.
Co-written and directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games), Free State of Jones is a solid historical docudrama that brings the controversial historical figure Newton Knight and his fascinting story to life on the big screen - at the same time, exploring the realties of life in the Reconstruction-era South that Civil War dramas past haven't examined as much (if at all). But while the film succeeds at being an informative and rugged dramatization of Knight's life (and the lives of the Jones County community), it falls short at being an equally compelling work of cinematic storytelling.
The Free State of Jones narrative written by Ross and Leonard Hartman is a sprawling one that covers Knight's life from 1862 through to the late 1870s - juxtaposing his story with a plot thread set in the mid-20th century, where one of Knight's descendants is prosecuted by the state of Mississippi due to his racial heritage. Free State of Jones succeeds in covering a lot of ground (even for a film well over two hours), thanks to the combination of Ross/Hartman's screenwriting and the tight editing by Pamela Martin (The Fighter) and Juliette Welfing (The Hunger Games). Nevertheless, Free State of Jones can only devote so much time to the numerous historical issues and plot threads that it weaves into its over-arching narrative about Knight's life; as a result, there are several subplots that wind up under-developed, as the film strives to include all the major "bullet points" of Knight's life and legacy.
There was clearly significant effort poured into making Free State of Jones a well-informed cinematic recreation of U.S. history - as evidenced by the fact that around a dozen historical consultants are listed in the film's end credits. This attention to detail can also be observed in the production design by Philip Messina (The Hunger Games series), as well as Ross and director of photography Benoît Delhomme's (The Theory of Everything) usage of swamps, plantations, and undeveloped regions in the South - including Louisiana and the real Jones County - as scenery to further heighten the film's sense of authenticity. Ross also integrates archived photographs and important historical details (via text) into the mix to provide a larger context for the smaller story being told in Free State of Jones (similar to what he did on Seabiscuit) - to the extent that, at times, Free State of Jones feels like a documentary featuring intricate re-enactment sequences.
Free State of Jones struggles to maintain its narrative momentum (and thus, has pacing issues) due to this storytelling style - an approach that also leaves supporting members of the film's ensemble with less development screen time than they could've used. Fortunately, most of the main characters in Free State of Jones are fully-realized, starting with the Oscar-winning Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight: a real-life figure who, thanks to a combination of writing and McConaughey's performance, undergoes a satisfying arc from being a rebel motivated by his own self-interests to a leader fighting for a cause that's much larger than himself. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) and Mahershala Ali (House of Cards) as the onetime slaves Rachel and Moses, respectively, likewise deliver fine performances - as their characters evolve from being survivalists themselves to people who are driven to take action by their own calling.
The Free State of Jones supporting cast includes Keri Russell (The Americans) as Newton's wife, Serena; Christopher Berry (12 Years a Slave) and Sean Bridgers (Room) as Newton's fellow Confederate soldiers-turned rebels, Jasper Collins and Will Sumrall; Bill Tangradi (Argo) as Lt. Barbour, a Confederate lieutenant who does continuous battle with Newton and the other members of the "Free State of Jones"; and Brian Lee Franklin (As You Like It) as Davis Knight, Newton's great-grandson. While the supporting cast delivers fine work in the film, their characters aren't so memorable - simply because there's just not room in Free State of Jones for them to do much more than show up and move the over-arching story forward, as necessary.
Free State of Jones is well-crafted and tells a worthwhile story, but makes for a better history lesson than moviegoing experience. Ross and his creative team are ambitious in seeking to provide both information and insight into the movie's historical subject matter (drawing parallels to present-day topical matters in the process) - but Newton Knight's story simply might have been better served by a TV mini-series than a film. All the same, moviegoers who are in the mood to learn about a relatively lesser-known part of the U.S. Civil War and its immediate aftermath may want to check out Free State of Jones in theaters - so long as they are prepared for something closer to a drama/documentary hybrid than a dramatic thriller.
Free State of Jones is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 139 minutes long and is Rated R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images.
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