FREE STATE OF JONES (USA/15A/139mins)
Directed by Gary Ross. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry
THE PLOT: During the American Civil War, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) deserts from the Confederate Army and, after initially hiding out in the swamp with runaway slaves, begins to grow his own army, one that is open to all who want to join, and has the aim of taking down the bullies within the southern army.
THE VERDICT: ‘Free State of Jones’, written and directed by Gary Ross, is a tale that is incredibly worthy and has some interesting facets, but in trying to blend together the personal and the political, as well as the past and the future, the film loses a lot of its bite.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, and he is the perfect choice for a charming and charismatic leader. We have seen the actor do roles like this many times on the big screen, so it is no great surprise that this is something that McConaughey excels at. The rest of the cast features Keri Russell, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Christopher Berry and Sean Bridgers, who all do fine with their roles, even though they do not get a lot to do.
Based on a story by Leonard Hartman, Gary Ross’ screenplay starts well in establishing Newton Knight and his motivations for fighting against the Confederate Army. It is a great shock then, 30 minutes or so in, when the film suddenly jumps to 85 years later, and a courtroom hearing of whether a descendant of Knight is 1/8th African American or not. These interludes come and go throughout the film, and although it becomes clear why this is happening, the strangeness and jumpiness of this choice never sits well with the rest of the film. Elsewhere, the film jumps through time in trying to cover the time during the Civil War and after slavery is abolished, but is never clear what story it is actually focusing on. All of the issues brought up are worthy, but none is given centre stage.
As director, Gary Ross coaxes performances from his actors that stand up under the weight of the oddly jumpy storyline, but other than Newton and his friend Moses, the audience struggles to get to know any of the major players in the film. The pacing of the film often feels torturous as it casts around for a story to cling on to. The cinematography of the film is strong, with the swamps looking as weird and otherworldly as possible, while the violent scenes are never shied away from.
In all, ‘Free State of Jones’ is a bit of a mess; there are plenty of worthy stories in the film, but none has been pulled out and brought to the fore. The performances are fine and the cinematography is strong, but ‘Free State of Jones’ needed a stronger directorial vision to be anything other than muddled.
RATING: 2.5/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    There are many films about the seismic, divisive American Civil War – and how it shaped the America that we know today. Free State Of Jones relates a true story that isn’t well-known over here across the pond, but it’s nonetheless an intriuging prospect.

    Set in Mississippi over the period from 1862 – 1876, the film focuses on Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey). While fighting in the trenches and battlefields for the Confederates against the Union army from the North, he becomes disillusioned with the purpose for this war. In his mind, it’s a war between two similar sides – neither of which he particularly cares for. He’s more interested in how the war is affecting himself and the poorer people whose land and crops have been ravaged by the marauding Confederate army for their own ends. With the help of Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), runaway slave Moses (Mahershala Ali) and friend Jasper (Christopher Berry), he forms a militia of civilians to rebel against the Confederate Government, thereby creating a Free State Of Jones, in reference to Jones County…

    Having kickstarted The Hunger Games, director Gary Ross returns to the smaller-scale productions that he originally started out with. With a screenplay written by Ross and Leonard Hartman, the story is based on historical fact. The idea of an inner rebellion taking place at the heart of another, much bigger rebellion is certainly engaging. It wasn’t the only civilian rebellion to occur during the Civil War, but this is particularly interesting given the charismatic man at the heart of it – Newton Knight. A man ahead of his time, he had a vision of America and an honest, colour-blind approach to civil rights that was still a century out of reach. Essayed with charm and steely determination by a committed McConaughey, he’s a fascinating character from the mists of history.

    Ross lets the story play out over a leisurely pace, which can be a bit slow and drawn-out. The pacing could be tightened up a bit, to make the film feel more urgent. Very brief flash forwards to a court case in post-WWII America act as a parallel story, which has some importance but feels under-used. Moving those scenes together to the end of the film might have made more sense story-wise. However, this is still a noble film with a fine cast and some important things to say. It’s even a film that works on three levels – a story of three centuries. There are obvious parallels here with the America of today. How much has changed with racial tensions in the US? Not much it seems. Free States Of Jones warrants a light recommendation. ***

  • emerb

    “Free State Of Jones” is an ambitious and powerful film from writer-director Garry Ross. It chronicles the story of a forgotten episode in Civil War history, one which I had never heard of until now. Set in Mississippi in the 1860s and 1870s, Matthew McConnaughey plays the hero of the story. He is Newton Knight, a controversial, real life soldier who deserted the Confederate army for principled reasons and became an inspirational leader. He led an uprising of disgruntled Mississippians, poor whites and former slaves against the Confederate army and created his own free state, based on the idea that “every man is a man” and that
    “no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich.” The uprising was largely successful and they fought off attempts to subdue or re-enlist them before the war ended.

    “Free State of Jones” begins in the middle of the Civil War, 1862. A disillusioned Mississippi medic, Newton Knight is witness to horrific carnage as he works as a nurse in the Confederate army. When he learns of a new law whereby owners of 20 or more slaves are declared exempt from military service, he becomes incensed – poor men have been conscripted to protect the rich men’s cotton. But he reaches a real breaking point when his nephew lasts only a few hours in combat before a sniper kills him. He becomes a deserter, returning to his wife
    Serena (Keri Russell) and child, only to to find his own people struggling. Poor farmers are having their corn and their livestock confiscated by the army. They’re being left to starve, while the wealthy landowners, who started the war, are not only staying rich but avoiding service. It’s only a matter of time before Confederate soldiers are hunting him down. Wanted for treason, he flees to a swamp, where the army can’t bring its horses. While there he forms a bond with runaway Moses (Mahershala Ali) who leads a group of escaped slaves and manages to retain his dignity and strength even with a hideous spiked metal collar still bolted to his neck. Knight also meets a kind, sweet plantation servant named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). With Serena out of the picture, having fled to Georgia with their son, they soon find love. Newton gathers a growing community of blacks and whites, slaves and deserters and he becomes their leader. Together they are committed to raiding plantations, re-seizing stolen crops, and fighting all who dare to end their rebellion. At the captured town of Ellisville, their now hundreds-strong group declares themselves a free state.

    McConaughey’s performance doesn’t disappoint. With his romcom days far behind him, he steps up to the mark here and embraces this dramatic role with enthusiasm and intensity. He even looks like a Confederate soldier from the 19th century with his slicked-back, unwashed hair, bushy beard, uneven teeth, cold eyes and steady gaze. It’s a raw, honest performance and one of his best. Keri Russell is dowdied down to play Knight’s first wife, Serena who abandons him during the war and returns later, but her role is small. The most effective female performance is from Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Rachel, the valiant house slave who gradually becomes his life partner. Mahershala Ali gives a memorable turn as Moses, the leader of the renegade slaves and Knight’s collaborator in rebellion
    and Reconstruction politics. The terrific Thomas Francis Murphy (“12 Years a Slave”) brings an eerie, villainous touch to the role of the Confederate commander who counters Newton’s rebellion by hanging children and burning
    down farms.

    This movie is long and at 139 minutes some may find it tedious in places but I didn’t. In fact I thought it was fascinating and absorbing to the end and I found it quite an education, in a good sense! It’s a superbly comprehensive and honest portrayal of an important period in American history. I liked the way we get helpful
    subtitles and historical updates as the story progresses (occasionally we jump ahead 65 years for a trial involving one of Newton’s descendants). Ross is not afraid to confront the complex and ugly aspects of the war and doesn’t shy away from showing us their horrifying struggle, with excruciating close-ups of spilled intestines, severed limbs and one scene in which Knight strangles a Confederate officer (Thomas Francis Murphy) with his belt is startlingly brutal. While it doesn’t fit neatly into Hollywood’s long list of emotional war sagas, the combination of powerful acting, chilling drama and images of unforgettable violence should mean that this film will strike a chord with many. It doesn’t really have an ending as such but maybe that’s because the fight in America continues and the lessons still ring true a century and a half later.

    (Repost as i put in the wrong place last time!)

  • dainiux79

    Not the story we want, perhaps, but one we need, told straight.