This American Civil War drama is blessed with an intriguing real-life figure as its subject, yet squanders its promise with a meandering narrative and some troubling racial politics.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Free State of Jones tells the remarkable story of farmer Newton ‘Newt’ Knight, who defected from the army and singlehandedly sparked a rebellion against the Confederacy, eventually establishing an area of Mississippi as the independent state of the movie’s title.
At this point, I would normally give a few more details about the plot, about what Newt gets up to, about his adventures fighting against the ‘powers-that-be’. Unfortunately, this is rendered impossible, and inadvisable, by the sheer abundance of story in Free State of Jones, and the pedestrian nature in which it is presented.
By the time that Newt is fighting in earnest with the Confederacy almost an hour of the film has elapsed, and we have been treated to Civil War battles, Newt’s desertion, an armed stand-off between a family and some soldiers, and Newt’s child being brought back from the brink of death by some ‘creole medicine’ courtesy of Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave from a nearby plantation. With the exception of the latter, very little of this is relevant to progressing the narrative, and yet director Gary Ross seems stubbornly committed to showing every detail of Knight’s story, no matter how inconsequential.
If the first half of the film is plodding, the second half flits feverishly around Knight’s life, and feels more like a collection of vignettes than a unified story. Particularly alarming was the appearance of the subtitle ’85 years later’, which marked the arrival of a subplot involving Newt’s great-grandson Davis, living in Jim Crow-era Mississippi and facing jail for marrying a white woman — he’s considered a ‘Negro’ for having African blood in his heritage. This is an unnecessary and confusing addition that clumsily foreshadows the romance between Newt and Rachel, and which never provides a particularly satisfying conclusion.
For a film centred around race, there is a familiar ‘white saviour’ theme running through Free State of Jones, which disappoints more than it angers. Newt is exactly the kind of incongruous historical hero that Hollywood cooks up, the enlightened but uneducated white man, who bravely and selflessly takes it upon himself to solve the problems of powerless black people. It’s a tiresome trope for the movie to feature, but ultimately there are bigger problems facing Free State of Jones.
There are positives to be found within this picture, however, which makes the overall awkwardness of the film so frustrating. McConaughey gives a thumping performance as Newt, simultaneously brooding and likeable, which goes some way to patching the film’s obvious holes. Thomas Francis Murphy is brilliantly sinister as Newt’s nemesis Major Amos McLemore, while Mahershala Ali does a great deal with the screen time he receives. The battle scenes are also well executed, from the bloody opening on the Civil War’s front lines to the shoot-outs between Newt’s outlaws and the Confederates.
In retelling such a little-known strand of the American Civil War’s history, Free State of Jones possessed a golden opportunity to whip up a thrilling, swashbuckling underdog tale and yet delivers a turgid, patchy history of the Deep South.
Words by Fraser Kay