A fictionalised account of the life of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), who deserts the Confederate army after the 1862 Battle of Corinth. Becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Rebs’ treatment of farmers and slaves, he then rebels against them, forming his own “Free State” in Mississippi.
In the steady but less-than-dextrous hands of director Gary Ross, Free State Of Jones turns an interesting sliver of US history into a stodgy wodge of blood, sweat and speechifyin’. It’s leavened somewhat by Matthew McConaughey, whose intense, blue-eyed glare and Southern charm are channelled effectively enough into the alpha character, Newt Jones. Sharp cheekbones hidden beneath a crazy-hobo beard, he sheds most blood, drips most of the sweat and delivers pretty much every single speech in that trademark croak-drawl. Though, after the turn of the film’s second long hour, it starts to rankle a little. Sadly, it seems the so-called McConaissance is already unravelling; Ross’ first film since The Hunger Games wasn’t the savviest of choices for the Dallas Buyers Club man.
The main problem here is that Ross can’t stick to a good story. Somewhere in the midst of this morass of a history lesson is a cracking Robin Hood reinterpretation. After rebelling against the Rebs, disgusted in particular at the way their brutal requisitioning policy affects the barely subsisting farmfolk of Jones County, Knight leads a ragtag group of deserters and escaped slaves, striking at the Confederates from the treacherous Mississippi swamp — his own ‘Sherwood’.
Ross’ first film since The Hunger Games wasn’t the savviest of choices for the Dallas Buyers Club man.
But Ross can’t just leave it there. Not only does he thin out the drama over a 14-year period, taking it way beyond the Civil War’s end, he also inserts jarring flashforwards to “85 years later” when Newton’s descendant is being prosecuted for his mixed-race lineage. And his repeated insertion of original photographs and historical documents hardly helps, giving the whole film the dusty tang of a museum AV exhibit.
Ross has a fair point to make. Namely, that what Knight and his fellow Free-Staters ultimately fought for — true emancipation for African-Americans — still hasn’t been entirely won. But he’s made it so poorly, all he’s achieved is an overlong and tiresome indulgence in white man’s guilt.
Too long, arduous, lecturey and patience-testing for even the all-new Matthew McConaughey to rescue. Director Ross is apparently so swamped by a sense of historical righteousness he hasn’t noticed he’s smothered a decent story.