The road to the “Free State of Jones” is paved with good intentions.
Ambitious, with a vivid turn by Matthew McConaughey in the lead role, its also timely, a story worth telling and remembering.
But the film woven out of this open-ended Civil War saga is preachy, cumbersome and patronizing, to boot. Whatever lessons anyone — especially any Southern one — might pull from this historic parable are muted by a film that is epic in length only.
The Civil War isn’t really over and wasn’t exclusively about slavery are its messages. And those are underlined, at every turn, by Gary “Seabiscuit” Ross’s script and direction and Matthew McConaughey’s righteous and committed performance.
In 1862, Newton Knight, McConaughey’s character, discovers the war’s class war subtext and isn’t shy about sharing it. It’s a war to help the rich folks stay rich by having slaves to pick their cotton. Hardscrabble Mississippi farmers like himself, his neighbors and his kin? Just cannon fodder in this “poor man’s fight, rich man’s war.”
We meet him as a medical orderly, toting the wounded back to the hospital tents in mid-battle. He switches the coats of some of the badly injured.
“They think you’re an officer, they’ll fix you sooner.”
When he cannot save a young relative for just that reason — the rich, whose war this is, come first — he’s had enough.
And back in Jones County, the injustice of it all is even more pronounced — wealthy plantation owners living in the style their slave labor cultivated, with the poor losing their boys, their livestock and their harvests to forced conscription and tax seizures.
It’s when he crosses swords with the rear echelon Confederate enforcers that Newt must go on the lam. And in the swamps, taken in by escaped slaves, this blacksmith/farmer comes to see the real enemy — the Antebellum One Percent.
Newt surrounds himself with like-minded dirt farmers. Gradually, some of them start to see past their racism and understand shared interests with the runaways. Jones County, and a couple of others, eventually fall under their control. The Free State of Jones may hope for help from the Union, but its founders have even higher aspirations — fairer taxes, freed slaves and a redistribution of wealth.
The story, the larger scope of which is true, is told in a fictive present in the 1860s and ’70s, with flash-forwards to a court trial about marriage and racial purity of the Mississippi of the 1950s. That’s an unsatisfying way of highlighting how little has changed, and sort of the first place the movie goes astray.
Newton Knight’s wife (Kerri Russell) and young son flee when he has a bounty put upon his head. That leaves the door open to a relationship with the Creole healer slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and some awfully forward-thinking living arrangements.
The combat sequences are vivid, thanks to Ross keeping the camera and the carnage right in our faces. This “noble” conflict was gory beyond imagining, bathed in blood, something the stark black and white photography of the day (sampled, here and there) left out. But the battles are Hollywood-style stand-offs — ambushes that lead to massacres.
Ross keeps his camera in McConaughey’s face, too. Every dirt stain, every twitch, every glower, wink and wince, is hard to miss. It’s not a bad performance, but it is an absurdly busy one.
Mahershala Ali, as a freed slave, and Mbatha-Raw are the standout supporting players. But “Free State” is peopled with legions of unknowns and non-actors in bit parts. Like “Gettysburg” and most under-budgeted Civil War movies, too many roles were cast based on who could grow (or fake) a decent beard, who could handle a horse or who fit into the overly-elaborate Confederate uniforms.
The “romance” is played down, as it almost certainly has to be in these more enlightened times. There’s too much exploitation inherent in the relationship for the old-fashioned she-saves-his-sick-kid/he’s-kind-and-generous-to-her dynamic to work.
But more of “Free State of Jones” comes off than you’d expect. And if modern fans pick up on the idiocy of falling for political race-baiting and the moral bankruptcy of 150 years of Southerners blindly following the burning cross, or relying on armed intimidation to preserve an unjust status quo, then Ross, McConaughey, Mbatha-Raw and Russell’s faith in this malnourished and overreaching project seems justified.
MPAA Rating:R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell, Mahershala Ali
Credits: Directed by Gary Ross, script by Leonard Hartman and Gary Ross. An STX release.
Running time: 2:19