During the American Civil War, a group of Southern farmers tired of the harsh taxation and the confiscation of their food crops for the war effort, decided to take arms against their own Confederate Government. Along with a number of deserters, women, and escaped slaves, they attempted to create a state free from such oppression and inequality– the Free State of Jones. This film is the tale of the leader of this movement, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), and charts his tale from the Civil War, to the courtroom that his descendant would one day have to continue his grandfather’s battle.
McConaughey binds this film together like hoops of iron. His performance is what we’ve come to expect of the actor, that strange combination of naturalistic and incredible intensity that marks his roles. It’s hard to fault that level of commitment, even if we have seen it all before. The audience is immersed into the world of the charismatic rebel Newton Knight as the meandering script leads us through his extraordinary life.
Immersive is probably the best way to describe the experience of Free State of Jones. It brings an unprecedented detail in set, design and costuming to the period. From the actor’s filth encrusted nails, to their hand darned clothing, to the rough-hewn wooden buildings (set ablaze with alarming regularity) there is an authenticity about this. It is a world with a lived in look, rather than a staged historical epic. You are drawn into it and feel like you are witnessing actual events. Combined with the factual nature of this tale (loosely speaking – Knight is still a character of some historical controversy) and it is very easy to provide the “willing suspension of disbelief” that cinema requires to function.
Which makes it a pity that the script is not up for the task. In its attempt to cover a wide historical and social epoch in the South (from the Civil War into Reconstruction and even into the Civil Rights Movement) The Free State of Jones spreads itself too thin. It is a Herculean task, and one that Gary Ross and Leonard Hartman’s script can’t pull off. This tale wanders through the events of Newton’s (and his descendant) life, not quiet aimlessly, but languidly. By itself the narrative seems disjointed, and despite the historical interest lacks the personal connection to pull you through. That said, the film does manage to provide a satisfactory conclusion, it just takes its sweet time getting there.
A fascinating glimpse at history, but its meandering nature robs it of some of its emotional impact.