Posted Oct 01 2016

Free State Of Jones - This Movie Struggles, But More Or Less Rocks In The End

Dir: Gary Ross

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Sean Bridges

To say that Gary Ross’ Civil War drama is well intentioned is not to damn it with faint praise. It is. It also has a big story to tell and doesn’t always know where to focus in telling it. In short, Free State of Jones takes on a lot of historical material, and in its earnest desire to do due diligence, sometimes mistakes fidelity for entertainment.

Based on a remarkable true story, which sees McConaughey’s Newt Knight desert from the Confederates in the dying days of the Civil War, only to clump together a group of like-minded souls and some runaway slaves and declare the land around them as an independent state, Ross’ film has a lot of ground to cover. This includes an interracial relationship between Newt and Mbatha-Raw’s Rachel – and the impact of that relationship played out in a Mississippi courtroom 85 years later – the portion of the film that works less well.

There is much to admire and enjoy in Ross’ movie but structure isn’t one of those things, as the film almost lurches from one significant historical moment to another, signified by an increasing amount of on-screen text explaining exactly where we are as the film progresses. In this day and age of HBO and box sets, you can’t help but feel Ross may have been better off telling this Roots-like tale over eight hours on cable, rather than two and a bit down the multiplex (which would certainly remove the awkwardness of the flash-forward.)

But it does feature some very well staged battle scenes, Gugu the great confirms herself as, well, great, and it allows McConaughey to deliver one of his most committed and powerful performances. Remember when all this man used to do was look glib and coast? Thank God those days are behind him.


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