Free State of Jones begins as a gripping tale of revolution but morphs into a ho-hum potted history of post-Civil War racism in the American South.
Free State of Jones builds a fictional story from a relatively obscure segment of American Civil War history – the seizing of part of Jones County in Mississippi and creation of a “free state” by a renegade militia led by Confederate deserter Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey). It’s a stirring tale of courage and idealism featuring some fine performances (McConaughy’s in particular) and would have worked a treat if the filmmakers had been content to give it its due and pursue it to an appropriate dramatic conclusion.
Instead, they bite off more than they can chew, extending the dramatic time frame and pushing the running time out to an overlong 2 hours 20 minutes as the main narrative is all but abandoned for a ho-hum potted history of post-War racism in the South. This is interspersed with a clunky and distracting series of time-shifts to a Mississippi mixed-marriage court case 85 years hence featuring the great-great-great grandson of Newton Knight.
There is much to like about the first two thirds of the film. It opens with a gripping and bloodily graphic American Civil War battlefield sequence, Confederate soldiers marching into a barrage of gunfire as they approach lines of Union troops brandishing one-shot rifles. As a Confederate medic, Newton Knight braves the heat of war to retrieve the wounded, not out of a sense of philanthropy or principle but because he has no choice – except to desert.
Disillusioned with the Confederates, who tax the poor to near-starvation, yet exonerate rich slave-owners and their sons from military duty depending on the number of slaves they own, he flees to the sanctity of a swamp camp of runaway slaves led by Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), who becomes his closest friend and ally.
The swamp community builds as Confederate deserters and escaped slaves arrive in increasing numbers. Driven by an essentially socialist vision of a society where all are equal regardless of colour, creed or gender, Newton takes on a leadership role, building a cohesive militia that eventually occupies whole towns, ultimately paving the way for him to declare Jones County a free state. He settles down to farm his land with his ex-slave lover Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and their child (Mississippi law forbids black-white marriage).
It is at this point that the film loses the plot, quite literally. With the Civil War and slavery at an end, Newton’s ideals appear to be generally ratified by the inaugural federal government, but bit by bit the new freedoms are eroded, both legally (by federal back-downs and local Mississippi government legislation), and illegally (by the emergent Ku Klux Klan). The life is sucked out of Newton and the other characters, who become mere vehicles for re-enacting events such as vote rigging, slavery-by-proxy under “apprenticeship” legislation, and Klan lynchings.
More and more weight is assigned to the court case, which really could have been reduced to a few lines of text at credit roll while still fulfilling its function of linking back to Knight’s achievements and demonstrating his ongoing legacy and influence.
You’ve got to feel for McConaughey and the other performers, who do all that is asked of them and more, only to have the writing team and director derail the film with the best of intentions but poor dramatic judgement.
Movie website: http://stxmovies.com/freestateofjones/
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