Movie Review: “Free State of Jones”

Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers
Gary Ross

Gary Ross’ movies are nothing if not sincere and, generally speaking, kindhearted. This time around, the writer/director behind “Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit” and the first “Hunger Games” tackles far tougher material with “Free State of Jones,” a biopic mostly about Confederate Army medic Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey). The film is often unwieldy, narratively speaking, but it’s also not without passion, telling a story that is frequently more brutal than inspiring.

The year is 1963, and though Newton has apprehensively signed up to fight in the Civil War, he opposes slavery and the ways of the Confederate Army. After his nephew is killed in combat, Knight becomes a deserter, sick of fighting in a war that he doesn’t believe in. He returns to Jones County, where he’s hunted by Confederates, and eventually flees with his wife Serena (Keri Russell), who ends up leaving Jonestown altogether. While hiding out in a swamp, Newt meets a group of escaped slaves, including Moses (Mahershala Ali) and his future wife Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), both of whom he develops close bonds to. Newton, Moses and others lead a rebellion against the Confederates, which is only the setup to a story that covers more time than one would think.

It’s easy to imagine the “white savior” version of “Free State of Jones,” but this isn’t that story, and Ross doesn’t treat it as such. The side characters, mostly Moses and Rachel, are at the forefront of this story almost as much as Newton Knight. Their arcs and struggles are the emotional backbone of the film. Of course, Jones is the lead, but this isn’t only his story. As for whether this is a white savior story, this is a film filled more with loss and pain than it is with Newton saving the day, and the characters he’s surrounded by often find the courage in themselves to stand up without his assistance. Most of the tropes linked to white savior stories are not present in here. Newton Knight is an inspiring figure, but he’s no more inspiring than Moses and other supporting characters.

Ross’ depiction of Newton isn’t particularly grandiose, either. He often grapples with defeat and loss, once again making this story more brutal than inspiring. He does give a rousing speech now and then, but for the much of the film, the character and McConaughey just look defeated. After the Civil War ends, the writer/director could’ve ended “Free State of Jones” on a false feel-good note, but that’s not what he does. The film goes into the struggles faced during Reconstruction and, surprisingly, the 1940s as well.

Ross does sometimes struggle to tell Newton Knight’s story in the two-plus-hour narrative – his first wife, Serena, comes and goes in the story – so the brief subplot regarding his great-grandson, Davis Knight, raises some pacing and structural problems. Davis Knight’s story, a white man charged with miscegenation for marrying a white woman, comes across more as a message than an integral part of the story. It’s a major misstep that ends up occasionally grinding the film to a halt.

Because of the nature of the material, this is Ross’ most brutal film to date as a filmmaker. He doesn’t sugarcoat, especially when it comes to the violence. There’s one shot, in particular, that is gut-wrenching. The director hasn’t made an epic Civil War story – it’s mostly reserved in tone and scope – but it’s not without its visceral moments when it comes to both the battle sequences and the drama. There’s a tracking shot of Newton running away in a field, and the sound of his feet hitting the ground and his deep breaths, with no music playing, is as intense as some of the bigger war sequences we’ve seen in recent years. There’s an intense sense of urgency to the sequence, which perhaps the film could’ve used more of, but otherwise, Ross has crafted a respectable and, more importantly, compelling drama that avoids most pitfalls that plague similar stories about this time period.