Free State of Jones
Gary Ross' Free State of Jones is a grueling and daunting, yet imperfect film that boasts powerful performances and a moving message. It's not the end-all Civil War film, but it's a noble attempt at telling a slightly different story.
Matthew McConaughey leads Gary Ross‘ latest film Free State of Jones with a powerhouse performance that follows the actions of a Mississippi farmer as he leads a band of rebels against the Confederate army during the American Civil War. Free State of Jones is not your typical war film, trading out extended action sequences for a more focused story that centers on the man and the people that helped him change the war.
Many will peg Free State of Jones early on for being slow or moving at pace that they are not comfortable with and while those arguments are true they are also somewhat missing the point of the film.
Free State of Jones isn’t about the Civil War. It’s about the people that it effected, both on the battlefield and off. It’s about the uncertainty of warfare and it’s about the idea that all men are equal.
It’s a unique film, because it never settles for one point in time to focus on. It follows McConaughey’s Newton Knight during and after the Civil War. It shows him in the heat of war, yet it also spends a great deal of time showing how the war has changed him and how it has made him the man that he eventually becomes.
It watches his family pre and post war as he continues to struggle with his fight against slavery and the equality of all men.
Newton Knight is a selfless farmer that quickly realizes that war is a horrible thing and made even worse if you’re stuck in the middle of one that you have no side to support you. He doesn’t own any slaves or cotton farms, which makes his allegiances with the Confederate army weak and yet the North won’t support him when he takes action and asks for back up.
He’s simply a man trying to do what he thinks is right, which is to help any man around him seek their equal rights as a human being on this Earth.
It’s a noble cause and a cause that comes with great consequence, yet he fights the good fight because he believes it to be true.
Matthew McConaughey gives one of his most gripping performances yet, truly digging down deep to give Knight a sense of honest compassion and understanding, yet the ability to do what is needed in the act of war.
His co-stars Mahershala Ali and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are equally remarkable, giving their characters’ depth and complexity in ways that sometimes overshadows McConaughey’s own performance and his character’s struggle.
Watching Mbatha-Raw remain so calm and collected, despite the constant abuse and hardship is sad, yet empowering, while Ali’s ability to keep the peace when his character has all the reason to violently act out is the ultimate sign of compassion and love.
Free State of Jones is an imperfect look at subject matter that is eye-opening and embarrassing for America as a country. How could these things have happened and continued to happen far past the “end” of the war? Why does injustice continue to corrupt our country even today?
Director Gary Ross and his co-writer Leonard Hartman do an okay job defining the characters and giving us a story that isn’t quite typical for a Civil War film. Yes, the film deals with racism and war similar to other films, but it also focuses on the strength of being united and the idea of working together as brothers and sisters, despite the color of our skin. It doesn’t stray away from showing the graphic violence, yet it never forgets to do more than sulk on the past.
The biggest problem with the film is its lack of focus. Early on the film establishes its pacing and hones in on Knight as he withdraws himself from the Civil War and re-locates to the swamps, but it is at that point where Knight meets many fascinating and interesting characters that are never given enough time on the screen.
Important characters get shuffled to the side while minor characters steal some of the film’s already too long running time.
The film’s third act suffers from a scramble of storylines and ideas trying to be accomplished within the film. Gary Ross attempts to cover a lot of material with not enough time and the film suffers the most from his ambitious efforts. Knight’s later moments aren’t felt as strong as his earlier ones, because of Ross’ inability to shift back and forth between different time periods.
The film becomes a disjointed mess that’s still amazingly acted, but slightly deflating to view.
Free State of Jones contains a powerful message and a moving story that’s muddied by too many characters and not enough time to properly handle them, yet it feels 30 minutes too long. Still, it’s an empowering film that’s spectacularly acted and shot with a sense of realism and understanding that highlights both just how precious a life is, yet how careless people are when faced with the decision to end one.