Free State of Jones (2016)
Directed by Gary Ross
Well, it was fun while it lasted. Matthew McConaughey’s stretch of brilliance started with “Mud” in 2012 (though “The Lincoln Lawyer” in 2011 wasn’t bad) and lasted through his career-topping television role in “True Detective,” his first Oscar win for “Dallas Buyers Club,” a blockbuster performance in “Interstellar,” and a stellar cameo in “The Wolf of Wall Street”…and ended here, in “Free State of Jones,” where we see McConaughey—really, for the first time since his career renaissance from rom-com hillbilly to Oscar-winner began—dip back into the fake-sentimental, ultra-Hollywood McConaughey of old. He’ll still get top billing, no doubt, but the McConaissance, sadly, is over.
In 1862, Newton Knight (McConaughey)—a poor farmer, Confederate nurse, husband, and father—decides that the Civil War isn’t his to fight. Sick of risking his life to keep rich plantation owners in business, Newt deserts the army and hides with a group of runaway slaves (including Moses, played by Mahershala Ali) in the Mississippi swamps. As the years go by, his rebel army grows larger and angrier. They’re fed up with soldiers taking their food and clothes, even though the military was granted the legal right to 10% of Southerners’ goods. It’s the people’s duty to provide for their military men, the government argues. But Newt, believing you should reap what you sow, leads a rebellion against the Confederates. The deserters get their just desserts. In 1865, the slaves are freed, and Newt, Moses, and others—including Rachel, the freed slave who became Newt’s second wife, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw—form a sort of interracial commune in upstate Mississippi. But the reconstruction period isn’t as kind to freedmen and women as the government had promised it would be. So Newt fights again, this time with the vote.
“Free State of Jones” tries to cover too much ground. It wants to be about all things Civil War, from the battles to slavery to reconstruction, lethargically sprinkling in historical context along the way. The story, laid out by first-time screenwriter Leonard Hartman, is just too broad in scope. Director Gary Ross (“Big,” “Seabiscuit”) wrote the script, but even he couldn’t tie up Hartman’s expansive story. It tries to be an avant-garde historical drama, an epic war movie, a romance, a biography, an action blockbuster. It ended up lacking any identity at all. In an effort to be everything, “Free State of Jones” runs too quickly through important scenes and skips the parts that might help develop the story properly. A romance is shown through a handful of short, impersonal encounters between Newt and Rachel. Just a few rushed battle scenes try to make the movie exciting, but then it cuts to a somber monologue from McConaughey that doesn’t connect emotionally. Maybe if “Free State of Jones” had stuck to just one of Knight’s many incredible life stories, instead of trying to cram all of them in at once, it would have allowed us to get to know the character better. Instead, we’re left guessing half the time. Not only that, but in a lazy effort to make up for these flaws, “Free State of Jones” tries to be overly sensational. Scenes with the KKK and slaves in head cages, while historically accurate, are used in an attempt to draw an emotional response from the viewer. And you should feel outraged. Slavery was a stain on this country. But I think at this point everyone agrees with that. Its populist message of the rich getting richer might ring true today, but most of the movie’s messages fall on deaf ears. We hear it, we just don’t understand why it needs to be said. Or for that matter, why the movie needed to be made. It lacks purpose and heart, though not for lack of trying.
As Newt Knight, McConaughey is predictably likable, but at the expense of proper character development. And despite the fact that Newt deserted his wife and kid along with the war. It was for a good cause, I guess, but at what cost? The star employs his stilted way of delivering lines in order to insert some unneeded dramatic pauses. It’s a good example of how “Free State of Jones” is one for us, not for him (unlike the controversial Sundance release “The Birth of a Nation,” which seems more poignant and artistic and less commercial and McConaughey-y). But we’re the ones who ultimately lose. Mbatha-Raw (“Concussion”) delivers a fine supporting performance, but her character is a mere shell of what it should have been, a paper-thin representation of the person Rachel Knight was in real life.
“Free State of Jones” is so boring it makes the Battle of Antietam more like the Battle of An-tedium. If you need a McConaughey fix, you’re better off revisiting the past—like 2013-2014.