'Free State of Jones': Film Review

More history than drama.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, the Mississippi farmer who led a rebellion against the Confederacy from the inside with the help of renegade slaves.

A compelling and little-known story of the Civil War period is studiously reduced to a dry and cautious history lesson in Free State of Jones. As if afraid to offend anyone or put a wrong foot in an era of racial hypersensitivity, writer-director Gary Ross tiptoes as if through a minefield in relating the fascinating tale of Newton Knight, a Mississippi farmer who had the temerity to lead a rebellion against the Confederacy from the inside with the help of a growing number of renegade slaves. Serious and upfront films about slavery have been scarce enough through the decades that it's notable to have at least two of them in 2016, this one and Nate Parker's impactful but also problematic Sundance winner The Birth of a Nation, set for release on Oct. 7 and bound to be the bigger audience-pleaser.

Returning to action four years after making the first Hunger Games installment, Ross opens well with sobering scenes of Civil War carnage, as Confederate troops are systematically mowed down while being marched directly into Union lines of fire. Ross underlines the butchery with dialogue footnotes about Dixie's class divide, as the poor do the fighting on behalf of rich landowners, who are exempt from military service if they own at least 20 slaves.

There could scarcely be a more sympathetic member of the Confederacy than Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a medic who's both anti-secession and anti-slavery; he's a reb by geographic happenstance alone. The quick death of a youngster he's taken under his wing is the last straw for the aging farmboy, who deserts and, back home, tries to protect his wife Serena (Keri Russell) from the illegal confiscation of most of their possessions; she soon sees no choice but to flee. More provocations send Newt fleeing to an impenetrable swamp where, in league with a small band of escaped slaves, he begins his career as a maverick marauder against his increasingly beleaguered Southern brethren.

In its sober and considered way, the film is absorbing at first, even for those with more than a passing knowledge of the war. Americans fighting Americans delivers a sharp sting, and Ross succeeds in establishing a thoughtful, non-sensationalistic tone as he lays the foundations for Newt's unintended career as a leader of disenfranchised men.

Twenty-five minutes in, the focus abruptly shifts to a courthouse scene in the late 1940s, in which a Caucasian-looking man is seemingly being accused of being part-black and, therefore, vulnerable to charges of miscegenation. Some sort of related link to the Civil War story is clearly in the offing.

In a gradual, Seven Samurai-like manner, Newt builds a belief in his hitherto subservient and downcast new allies that they can strike back against their longtime tormentors. “Nobody done nothin' like that for them before,” remarks Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a house slave at a nearby plantation who ends up doing many favors for the renegades and eventually becomes Newt's common-law wife. The first order of business is getting a dreadful iron necklace with upward-pointing spears removed from Moses (Mahershala Ali), the clear leader among the “collective.” The second is for Newt to teach them all how to shoot; they learn very quickly.

But just as the film seems like it's about to really click into a higher gear, it loses momentum midstream and ultimately becomes didactic in its time-jumping final act. There is much incident: Families are shattered, innocents are hanged, farms and churches are burned and the hell that is war and the fundamental unfairness of life are on abundant display.

Still, Ross is more attentive to what is historically known of Newt Knight and his times than to the imperatives of good drama; the veteran screenwriter has neglected to write any interesting or emotional scenes between Newt and Rachel, dialogue is devoted far more to issues than to quotidian banter and the Reconstruction-era scenes jump from one increasingly negative historical moment to the next. The Ku Klux Klan is born, plantations are restored to their former owners, apprenticeship becomes a euphemism for slavery, voting rights for blacks are squelched and “emancipation” is a term that must be enclosed within qualifying quotation marks. As the characters recede, the final stretch becomes a checklist of setbacks for racial fairness and equality, a build-up that concludes with a consequent outrage in the resolution of the 1940s court case.

Well before it's over, then, Free State of Jones (which never really does satisfactorily address the issue of the three relevant Mississippi counties ever having been declared a “state”) has devolved from an engaging historical drama into a compendium of regressive racial developments. Despite endowing Newt with a right-amiable manner and an easy way with speechifying, McConaughey doesn't get the opportunity to create a fully dimensional man — he's given precious few intimate moments and no flashes of self-doubt. Ali is charismatic and his character's arc is the most eventful and tragic, but Mbatha-Raw is given little opportunity to flash the talent she's suggested previously.

Shot entirely in Louisiana, the film benefits from its lush rural locations and the lived-and-died-in look of its sets and costumes.

Distributor: STX Entertainment
Production companies: Bluegrass Films, Rahway Road, Larger Than Life Productions
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi,, Brian Lee Franklin, Kerry Cahill, Joe Chrest, Jessica Collins, Donald Watkin, Jill Jane Clements
Director: Gary Ross
Screenwriter: Gary Ross, story by Leonard Hartman, Gary Ross Producers: Scott Stuber, Jon Kilik, Gary Ross
Executive producers: Robin Bissell, Leonard Feder, Leonard Hartman, Bruce Nachbar, T.G. Herrington, Wang Zhongjun, Wang Zhonglei, Jerry Ye, Donald Tang, Stuart Ford, Matt Jackson, Russell Levine, Lee Jea Woo, Chris Lytton, Robert Simonds, Adam Fodelson, Oren Aviv, Christopher Woodrow, Michael Bassick
Director of photography: Benoit Delhomme
Production designer: Philip Messina
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Editors: Juliette Welfling, Pamela Martin
Music: Nicholas Britell
Casting: Debra Zane, Meagan Lewis

Rated R, 140 minutes