Director: Gary Ross
Writer: Gary Ross
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell
Release date: August 25th, 2016
Distributor: STX Entertainment
Running time: 140 minutes
Best part: Matthew McConaughey.
Worst part: The courtroom-drama sub-plot.
No other Hollywood A-lister has experienced more critical and commercial ebbs and flows than Matthew McConaughey. The man’s man went from dumb action flick/romantic-comedy lead to crime-drama superstar. True Detective Season 1, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club showcase his range and commitment. Free State of Jones continues the McConnaissance’s post-Oscar run.
Like Interstellar and Sea of Trees, Free State of Jones is sure to divide critics. Based on an inspiring true story, it’s another docudrama more necessary than worthwhile. The plot chronicles the timeline of events in Jones County, Mississippi during the American Civil War and following years. As a Confederate Army battlefield medic during the 1862 Battle of Corinth, Newton Knight (McConaughey) becomes desensitised by bloodshed and chaos. The former farmer snaps after his nephew Daniel’s death. He defects and returns to his homestead and wife Serena (Keri Russell) before befriending slave girl Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
The best docudramas explore one part of a famous person’s life, expanding upon their social and cultural relevance. The worst ones, however, stretch from birth to death. The latter approach makes Free State of Jones one of 2016’s biggest disappointments. Based on two major texts, its reach well exceeds its grasp. Sure, writer-director Gary Ross’s pet project has good intentions. Stories about Civil War history, important historical figures, slavery in America and American politics resonate with wide audiences. This one is a high school student’s ultimate cure for insomnia. Ross captures enough material for a HBO mini-series. The plot takes multiple turns after Knight’s return home. He, seeing poor men fighting a rich man’s conflict, plans revenge on his former army. He, fellow defectors and runaway slaves take down Confederacy taxation agents and give back to local farmers. As a mix of Defiance and Glory, the first half is peaks the interest levels.
However, the second half features several underdeveloped subplots ripe for parody. The three-way romance – between Knight, the slave, and his frustrated wife – is worth its own movie. Worse still, the courtroom scenes – chronicling Knight’s ancestor fighting for rights in the 1950s – adds nothing to the narrative. The Ross packs in an exorbitant array of dot points including the Ku Klux Klan’s formation, freedom and voting rights for slaves, the Census etc. His stylistic choices merely pad out the running time. Title cards, delivered every 10 minutes, halt proceedings to display real-life footage and paragraphs’ worth of text. However, the battle scenes unleash an eye for period detail and unflinching violence. The performances also shine. McConaughey, bouncing off quality character-actors, is a charismatic force.
Free State of Jones is an example of potential ruined by execution. Stuck between gargantuan historical epic and TV mini-series, it contains too much and too little. McConaughey still gets away Scot-free.