Free State of Jones
by George Wolf
For all the onscreen battles in Free State of Jones, a more persistent one dogs the film throughout, as writer/director Gary Ross struggles to find cohesion for elements that too often conflict. The historical drama at the film’s core is so vast, it feels as though Ross just couldn’t bring himself to restrain any part of it.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, a farmer near Jones County, Mississippi who deserted the Confederate Army during the Civil War. As the numbers of fellow deserters grew, Knight led what came to be known as the Knight Company, a small army of Southerners that battled the Confederacy in an attempt to establish the “Free State of Jones.”
Historians still argue over Knight’s true motivations, but the film is less than nuanced at the outset, clearly drawing Knight as a poor man refusing to die in a rich man’s war, and unable to accept “any man telling another man what he’s got to live for, or what he’s got to die for.”
Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) does find more subtlety as the film progresses, but Newton’s heroically righteous nature, albeit delivered through a committed and moving performance from McConaughey, feels manufactured. Ditto the minimal racial tensions present in a unit mixing runaway slaves and AWOL Confederates.
Conversely, amid this idealism, the film is effectively brutal in its depiction of war and the deep, ugly roots of racism. But even here, the pendulum eventually swings back to manipulation, as Ross’s aim seems to be less about learning from history and more about being proud of how badly we feel.
Sparring tones continue, most specifically when the Knight Company uprising is woven through details of a decades-later jury trial involving one of Knight’s descendants from his marriage to a former slave (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Bridges between each thread are built with dry, history-lecture sequences that are equal parts salient info and narrative distraction.
Ross’s passion is understandable. This truly is an incredible piece of America’s history, but one so expansive that an approach this broad is hampered from the start. Free State of Jones leaves fine performances and effectively-crafted sequences strewn across the battlefield, but the emotional connection needed to bind them remains just over that next hill.