Free State of Jones is all McConaughey

A review of a new, somewhat novel Civil War drama fuelled primarily by star power and historical minutae.

Matthew McConaughey in Free State of Jones

2.5 star rating

For some reason, telling the story of the American Civil War has become a mostly televisual pursuit. Some films have adopted it as a background, but films firmly entrenched in the stories of the Civil War are either gargantuous in length (such as Gettysburg or Gods and Generals, the two epic-length films directed by Ronald F. Maxwell), epic-length miniseries (Roots, The Blue and the Grey, North and South) or an epic-length documentary series by Ken Burns. It seems that if a Civil War story is worth telling, it’s only worth telling by going into meticulous, long-winded detail. Gary Ross’s new film Free State of Jones seems to support that, in part; at a relatively paltry 139 minutes, it feels like a well-meaning but ultimately truncated miniseries, the kind of movie they used to make by editing down an eight-hour miniseries into two for theatrical release.

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) deserts the Confederate army (in which he worked as a medic) and returns to his wife (Keri Russell) and children, knowing full well that if he’s ever discovered, he’ll be tried as a deserter. After the death of a teenage relative he had vowed to protect, Knight exiles himself to the swamp with a coterie of black men who are also hiding out from the Confederates. Cared for by Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a house slave who works for a family nearby, the men establish a small community in the woods that grows stronger and stronger as more deserters and freed slaves join the fight against the Confederacy. As his ranks grow, Knight attempts to establish the titular Free State of Jones, even as slavery is eventually outlawed and the South is overtaken by the Klan.

Ross makes the baffling decision of intercutting the story with 85-year flash-forwards, where a descendant of Knight’s is standing trial for marrying a white woman — he doesn’t know he’s one eighth black, which qualifies the marriage as unlawful. Instead of being used as a framing story, Ross dips (very sparingly) back into the story as the film progresses, laying the groundwork for the very predictable twist that Knight and Rachel are eventually to fall in love. It’s the most egregious product of the film’s sometimes unwieldy adherence to fact, an overwrought attempt to show how little Knight ultimately accomplished that makes that point before we even see him accomplish anything.

Free State of Jones therefore proves to have no particular narrative momentum besides the inevitable passage of time; like those aforementioned mini-series, it dutifully hits every major and minor point in Knight’s life without much concern for narrative propulsion. (It even employs text over old daguerreotypes to bridge scenes, which gives the film the institutional feel of something you watch in a museum.) Perhaps it’s the fact that the Civil War is a preferred topic of dorky, pedantic dads in all 50 states, but Free State of Jones mostly wastes its dynamite premise on stultifying detail, as if Ross is dreadfully afraid of being seen as having made some shit up — in a work of fiction, no less.  As fundamentally interesting as this unique story is, it’s interspersed with tedium, the rare kind of film that feels both overstuffed and rushed.

The film’s dry, quasi-educational tone isn’t helped much by Ross’s indifferent, undistinguished directing. Best known for directing the first Hunger Games movie, Ross has no particular imprint that he leaves anywhere on the film. It’s certainly competent, but even the brutal war scenes are assembled with a workmanlike spirit that ensures the film has no standout set pieces, just an endlessly chronological green-brown history lesson.

McConaughey certainly can’t be faulted for the film’s uneven momentum; Free State of Jones is a true star vehicle that makes the most of McConaughey’s strengths while downplaying his flaws as much as possible (that having been said, his weird little yelps come through unscathed). McConaughey is always compelling even when the film isn’t, and in that sense it resembles an old-fashioned 1950s star vehicle that appears to exist only to showcase its star. McConaughey’s the best thing about Free State of Jones, which is doubly disappointing when you consider he’s pretty much the only facet of the film that’s a given. Even the greatest movie stars of all time had some failures, but they also had this kind of thing: polite, stuffy historical dramas that you may need for a history report one day — but little else. ■

Free State of Jones opens in theatres on Friday, June 24. Watch the trailer here: