A Lackluster Rebellion: Our Review of ‘Free State of Jones’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - June 24, 2016
A Lackluster Rebellion: Our Review of ‘Free State of Jones’

You are told at the start of Free States of Jones that the following tale is based on a true story, and takes place across some 18 years. Still, at one point we jump briefly 85 years into the future, briefly returning to that period at random intervals. Over halfway through the film, we’ve yet only maybe covered a few years of events. That is, the scale of this Civil War story about Newton Knight and his southern confederate dissidents can’t cohere enough to reach its desired effectiveness, instead meandering, hitting predictable period’s notes, and perhaps giving up under the pressure.

Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a Mississippi nurse, all too aware of the horrors of war; he watches a young, scared boy get shot on his first trip to the battlefield. This is enough for him to question the point of war, and soon he returns home to his wife (Keri Russell), unsure of what to do next but sure that it’s not fighting. At least not for the South. After a slave and future partner (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) helps return his son to health from a fever, Knight, now branded a traitor, realizes that black people and the poor have more in common, and he is ferried to a secret commune in the swamps to hide away.

There, as expected, unlikely friendships are made, calls to arms against the rich are heeded, and a once meager survivalist group evolves into a vigilante militia – see, he’s still cool with fighting. He rallies individuals and groups, speaks up against racism, and finds commonality between slaves and soldiers, especially with Moses, our male slave lead who is widely written but played with heart and sympathy by Mahershala Ali.

At nearly two and a half hours, it’s all a group of rather effective if not fully realized individual pieces that cannot come together in making a powerful whole: authentic, bloody battles, a strong lead performance, and present day correlations. Stirring speeches and tragic deaths aren’t as powerful as they want to be, and this becomes a period piece about war that can be about any rebellious leader fighting for any cause at any moment in history. Fine, generic filmmaking, but ultimately, inescapably generic indeed.

The second half of Jones barrels along, as if realizing there is so much to cover yet, and I’m hard-pressed to think of another film that uses so much text throughout to explain to the audience the politics and policies of a changing world. There is no sense of time, and while many may be familiar with the events of the reconstructionist south, there is a lack of understanding the stakes beyond the immediate characters we’ve come to watch. What’s more, that aforementioned tangent some 85 years in the future is more a distraction than the telling metaphor it is clearly attempting to present.

Director Gary Ross can’t decide what kind of story, what kind of movie this wants or needs to be, and as a result Free State of Jones runs derivative and superfluous. The brutality, initially used to situate the viewer, becomes pointless and telegraphed later on, as the film limps towards an unremarkable conclusion, punctuated by McConaughey growling, sneering, and stirring his way towards some semblance of freedom.

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