Matthew McConaughey historical dramas are like a cheap sherry — they have their charm but neither people who like cheap booze or sherry really enjoy them. So when the star decided to go from films about the AIDS crisis and fourth dimension physics to one of the most sensitive and cruel periods of history, people were apprehensive. Surprisingly, it’s not an absolute train wreck. And the parts that are a mess aren’t even McConaughey’s fault.
Let’s take a look at Free State of Jones.
Free State of Jones is about Newt Knight, an unwilling Confederate soldier who after seeing a nephew die on the battlefield, returns to Jones County, Mississippi. Forced to relocate to the swamps with runaway slaves, he decides that he no longer wishes to die for the desires of rich men and proceeds to overtake the township with guerrilla-style tactics. However, it isn’t enough to keep the African Americans in his community safe and he struggles to protect Rachel, a newly freed slave whom he loves and has a child with. Intercut throughout the story is a court case involving the progeny of Knight and little historical facts about Jones County and what occurred there.
In terms of acting, the work is actually surprisingly good. Mahershala Ali delivers a heartbreak performance as Moses, a man who fought for freedom and family up until the terrible end when he is castrated and hung. He is the quiet, powerful man who only breaks down once when his son is taken away, a moving moment of solidarity for Knight. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Rachel is equally well played, a strong woman with a lot of dignity and love, an almost Oscar-worthy performance. Matthew McConaughey is also great, with a simmering and quiet rage that manages to be both tactful and impressive. In fact, nothing in the film is over the top or hyperemotional, no passionate flag waving or table slamming. Who knew McConaughey could do this well in a subdued film.
The aspect that took this movie from a respectable effort to the pile of wasted potential it turned into is the editing of the film. It was like Gary Ross couldn’t decide what kind of film he wanted to make — a pseudo documentary, a historical drama, or a interconnected family story. Instead, he smashed elements of all three, which is weird considering Ross has made some solid work before. The most egregious part was the flashing back and forth in time with little context to a great-great-great grandson of Knight undergoing to a trial for legally being considered a Black man. This would have been an interesting way of understanding the legacy of Knight but ultimately, it’s used so infrequently and with no real introduction that it just feels like a random interlude without purpose. There are transitions that are done like a traditional historical piece, with text and pictures rather than acting out the action. So between the cutaways to another story we haven’t had time to be invested in and the historical documentary splices, the movie is tonally confused.
That’s not to say that the script is a total crapshoot. There are genuinely moving moments in the script, like when Newt discovers that Rachel is being raped, or when Newt finds the body of Moses after he’s lynched. They are soft, emotionally devastating moments that elevate the film from mediocre to dramatically interesting. Again, it is the insistency on reminding the audience of the larger historical background as well as the future storyline that ultimately keeps the movie from achieving greatness.
The cinematography is not bad by any means either — the world feels big and expansive, with good use of period costume and weaponry. There are very well composed shots, like when Newt’s great-great-great grandson is sitting in his car, trying to decide whether he should take a plea deal and everything goes in and out of focus as he feels out of sorts and disconnected. The fight choreography is also well done, especially for a civil war film, a subgenera which tends to hide everything in fog and canon fire smoke.
As it stands, Free State of Jones is a good try at a solid historical drama that tried to be too much and squandered all of its good will and potential. If Ross had just tried to tell the story of Jones County and Newt Knight, it would have been a much stronger story, but instead it spread itself too thin. It ends up being yet another film trying to harness the popularity of 12 Years A Slave but it does not reach the same emotional height.
– Strong acting.
– Strong emotional scenes.
– Good cinematography.
– Mixing of three different movies into one.
– Weird editing.