‘Free State of Jones’ stars Matthew McConaughey (‘Dallas Buyers Club’), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (‘Belle’), Mahershala Ali (‘House of Cards’), and Keri Russell in a civil war set drama. Within the Revolution of the Confederacy in the U.S.A, there is a band of farmers and runaway slaves that felt cheated by the Confederacy, by being forced to fight in a war with no clear objective, as well as having all their food and supplies stolen by the Army. So, a deserter from the Confederacy, Newton Knight (McCounaghey), organizes a revolt within the revolt to stop the Confederacy.
Read that synopsis again. Sounds interesting, right? Well that’s what I thought. Initially when the movie came out, it received mixed reviews, some praising the performances and realistic setting, others not so enthused by receiving a 140 minute history lesson. Sadly, I have to side with the negative reviews here.
What the film does have going for it is squandered by a long, dull, slow script that features too many subplots, with not enough substance in any of them. It jumps from a historical drama, to an intense war film, to a courthouse drama. to a character piece to a…well you get the point! All of which encapsulates the story of this rather unknown and interesting guy, Newton Knight. This character and McConaughey’s portrayal of him are the best parts of this movie. I continue to think that McConaughey is one of the best actors currently working, post-2012 with his “McConaissance,” and he demonstrates that wholeheartedly in this film. All of the other performances are really well done, especially Mahershala Ali’s Moses, who is a runaway slave. The dynamic that Newton Knight has with his mini-platoon of fellow Confederate haters is also really interesting…until it happens on screen.
Other notable things about the movie include the music and the setting. The costuming is terrific, and the southern accents are all squeaky-clean. A lot of the fighting has a sense of the fighting style for the era, and the message about race relations and the unity of people are all in the right place. Sometimes, the parts are better as parts rather than a whole.
There are at least five speech scenes spread throughout the film that seem completely phoned in, director wise. Everything looks the same and is cyclical. The frame rarely holds anything of weight, there aren’t any laudable subtleties from the direction, and there’s too many tonal shifts. There’s a 10 minute vignette set in a 1960s courthouse in Mississippi, parts being spread throughout the film, that could be completely cut. The only reason the court scenes exist is because that is the only reason that this film could be relevant. I know it’s based on a historical book, and all of these events were real. But something about how this movie was handled by the director makes it seem both too dramatized and too respectful to the real people, with no real entertainment value or cultural status. For example, all of the war scenes have an incredible amount of brutality and violence. It seems director Gary Ross is making up for all of the shaky-cam nonsense in the first “Hunger Games” movie. All of these scenes don’t feel like they could’ve happened in the 1860s, there’s too much “action hero” stuff going on. But to counter this, every conversation in the film has a pause between every line that is sleep-inducing. It doesn’t help that the film’s shot composition is almost entirely under-exposed and gray.
None of the conversations really convey anything of interest. There’s some intriguing backdoor politics, that’s a good five minutes. Some of McCounaghey’s scenes talking about his strategy are good, there’s another ten minutes. There’s maybe twenty to thirty minutes of fighting. That leaves 90 MORE MINUTES OF BORING CHARACTER BUILDING. It’s not to say that slow films are bad, but slow films have to have a reason for them to be slow. There has to be a tension of sorts, or someone relatable and compelling to hold your interest. This film tries to do so much of what better films have done, that it just feels like watching a second-rate movie. You want a good slave movie, then watch ’12 Years a Slave’. You want a good character study? Go for ’12 Years a Slave’. You want a good historical drama? Go for ‘Schindler’s List’. Bottom line, you can skip this one. It’s not worth spending money to see.