Film Review: ‘Free State of Jones’

Free State of Jones
Courtesy of STX Entertainment

Matthew McConaughey plays a Confederate deserter turned guerrilla saint in a Civil War drama more dogged than exciting.

Newton Knight, the Mississippi-farmer-turned-Confederate-deserter-turned-guerrilla-leader played by Matthew McConaughey in “Free State of Jones,” is a historical figure of some controversy. He’s regarded by many as a heroic freedom fighter; some think of him as a reckless criminal. (The divide in opinion, no surprise, tends to fall along North/South lines.) But in “Free State of Jones,” a Civil War drama written and directed with more doggedness than excitement by Gary Ross, there is never much doubt about the kind of man that Newton Knight is. He’s Kevin Costner in “Dances with Wolves” crossed with a saintly Marxist professor crossed with a white version of Malcolm X. For all the ravaged surface appeal of McConaughey’s performance, the character is a little too good to be true, but then, that’s just the sort of movie “Free State of Jones” is. It’s a tale of racial liberation and heroic bloodshed that is designed, at almost every turn, to lift us up to that special place where we can all feel moved by what good liberals we are. The historical events exert some ongoing interest, but the treatment is pious and stiff-jointed enough to leave you wondering what a two-hour-and-19-minute drama that never begins to attain the moral urgency and fascination of something like “Glory” or “12 Years a Slave” is doing being released in the middle of the summer. Box-office prospects don’t exactly look rousing, since the film itself simply isn’t rousing enough.

In 1862, when “Free State of Jones” begins, Newton Knight is just an anonymous battle-weary medical nurse, up to his elbows in carnage, who ducks out of combat to take the corpse of a young neighbor home for a proper burial. Once there, however, he sees Confederate soldiers looting local farms, and his witnessing of this minor outrage fuses with his already testy anger over a new law that exempts the oldest sons in Confederate households from military service, as long as their family owns at least 20 slaves. (If they own 40, then two sons are exempt.) It’s a law designed to protect rich men, and that’e enough to make Knight question what he’s warring for. “I’m tired of helpin’ ’em fight for their damn cotton,” he says — a line that, perhaps, calls a little too much attention to its contemporary topical relevance. (All that’s missing are subtitles stating that the Iraq war was really fought for oil.) Newton’s standoff with the looters leads to his desertion from the Confederate Army, and he winds up hiding in the Mississippi bayou, along with half a dozen former slaves, who become the genesis of his newly formed fighting force. It’s his rebellion against the Southern rebellion, but it’s not just a combat unit. It’s a ragtag band of idealists, a community, with Newton as its commander, moral compass, and spiritual guru.

One way to characterize the McConaissance is to say that it was all about Matthew McConaughey going into the darkness. In his cheesy, star-has-fallen period, he was all sweetness and light — the dimply narcissism, the good-ol’-boy charm so relentless that it had begun to verge on smarm. But in movies like “The Lincoln Lawyer” and (especially) “Magic Mike,” where he began to let bits of sleaze and sinister manipulation ooze through the cracks of his aging pretty-boy glamour (a journey that culminated in his staggering performance on “True Detective”), McConaughey began to dance between the angelic and the demonic, and it liberated him as an actor. Of course, he also won the Oscar for playing a scoundrel with a heart of gold in “Dallas Buyers Club,” and that has a way of influencing the kind of roles you take.

In “Free State of Jones,” his Newton Knight is a figure of enlightened valor who has left any shades of moral ambiguity behind. Yet McConaughey has become so skilled at portraying sinewy desperation that he takes even a badass plaster saint like Knight and gives him an ornery intrigue around the edges. Gaunt and reserved, with cold staring eyes and a scraggly black beard, he makes Knight a ravaged desperado, a Southerner of primitive Old Testament faith who’s looking for somewhere to invest that belief, since he can no longer find a place for it in the Confederacy. In the bayou, when he meets Moses (Mahershala Ali), a former slave with a spidery metal guard that’s been bolted around his neck, it taps right into the depths of his human decency. A former blacksmith, Knight volunteers to remove the guard with a hammer and wedge — but the clanging sound is destined to bring on the soldiers and their dogs. So he and Moses and the other runaway slaves get ready to take up arms.

The film builds up a fair amount of curiosity about how Knight is going to succeed with his insurrection, given that the entire Confederate army of Mississippi is arrayed against him. But “Free State of Jones” is one of those historical dramas with a script that’s big on crowning lines of moral fervor and not so big on nuts-and-bolts detail. At several points, Ross employs real Civil War photographs (with explanatory titles) to advance the story, and after the film uses one of these shots to tell us that in July, 1863, Confederate desertions were on the rise, we cut to Knight’s woodland guerrilla army — and it’s suddenly a force of 100 people, all united in their renegade passion. I’m not sure that the film ever quite recovers from this short-handed piece of exposition.

How does everyone under Knight’s command get along? More or less famously. There’s a fiddle-music montage of a corn-and-roast-pig picnic, and we always know when we’re supposed to stop and hiss, because the Confederate baddie Lt. Barbour (Bill Tangradi) shows up, in his George A. Custer decadent blonde ringlets. Knight’s army, by contrast, is a racially and sexually integrated paramilitary utopia. It includes a handful of women who can shoot a rifle as well as any man, and although most of the group is comprised of former Dixie soldiers, there’s almost no friction between blacks and whites. The way Ross presents it, it’s really a Southern aristocrat’s war in which every one of the Confederates who’ve dropped out can see right through the illusion of why they were ever asked to fight. (It’s all about the cotton, man! And the one percent.) The only instance of racial tension within Knight’s army comes when a soldier calls Moses the N-word, and Moses simply replies, “How you ain’t?” By which he means: How you ain’t a n—-r? — since all of them, black and white, are being exploited by the very same forces. One truly has to wonder whether a conversation like this one ever took place in 1863.

As Knight’s rebellion grows, it takes over the southeast portion of Mississippi, including Jones County, which Knight declares to be “the free state of Jones.” It would seem as though his declaration applies to matters of the heart as well. The film recounts the story of his relationship with a former slave, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), whom he teaches to read and fire a gun, and who ultimately bears his child. The film’s portrayal of biracial harmony is admirable and touching, yet the staging of this love story is far too decorous and restrained, even when Knight’s wife, Serena (Keri Russell), and Rachel wind up sharing the duty of raising Knight’s baby son. In reality, Knight had five children with Rachel, who became his common-law wife, and nine children with Serena, and he lived with both families on adjoining properties. That story would have made for a fascinating movie, much more so than the tale of predigested enlightenment and generic idyllic romance that is “Free State of Jones.”

Film Review: 'Free State of Jones'

Reviewed at Magno, New York, June 20, 2016. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 139 Min.

Production

An STX Entertainment release, presented with Huayi Brothers, in association with IM Global, Route One Entertainment, Union Investment Partners, Vendian Entertainment, of a Bluegrass Films, Rahway Road, Larger Than Life production. Produced by Jon Kilik, Gary Ross, Scott Stuber. Executive producers, Oren Aviv, Michael Bassick, Robin Bissell, Lenny Feder, Adam Fogelson, Stuart Ford, Leonard Hartman, T.G. Herrington, Matt Jackson, Russell Levine, Christopher Lytton, Bruce J. Nachbar, Robert Simonds, Donald Tang, Zhongjun Wang, Zhonglei Wang, Lee Jae Woo, Christopher Woodrow, Jerry Ye. Co-producers, Diana Alvarez, Eric Heffron. Co-executive producers, Samuel Y. Ha, Elexa Ruth.

Crew

Directed, written by Gary Ross; story, Ross and Leonard Hartman. Camera, Benoît Delhomme (color); editors, Pamela Martin, Juliette Welfling; music, Nicholas Britell; music supervisor, Jason Markey; production designer, Philip Messina; supervising art director, Dan Webster; art directors, Andrew Cahn, Chris Craine; set decorator, Larry Dias; costume designer, Louise Frogley; sound, Pud Cusack; supervising sound editor, Paul Hsu; re-recording mixers, Michael Prestwood Smith, Hsu; visual effects supervisor, Nikos Kalaitzidis; visual effects, Digital Domain 3.0; special effects supervisor, Dave Nami; associate producer, Sandino Moya-Smith; assistant director, Eric Heffron; casting, Debra Zane, Meagan Lewis.

With

Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Brendan Gleeson, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Brad Carter, Kirk Bovill, Manny Penton, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, Brian Lee Franklin, Kerry Cahill, Joe Chrest, Jessica Collins.

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  1. janna says:

    The truth is Democrats were the ones who owned slaves. Abraham Lincoln was a republican. Demon rats lie and lie til they die.

    • Karl Logan says:

      Janna,…..regarding your comment, which means absolutely NOTHING. Parties form, platforms change, people change and evolve, others do not and they die, both as a party, an ideology, a nation. All in all, the Democrats have done an exemplary job of coming from the neanderthal attitudes which form the historical basis of which you speak, while Republicans have devolved to a point of the loathsome condition in which they now find their party, as characterized by their repulsive candidate Donald Trump and his pool of Deplorables. That party has purged itself over the years of anything even approaching a reasonable Moderate and now its identity is best expressed by the caricature of the fundamentalist, bigoted, racist redneck who is utterly out-of-touch with the reality of the world and the times. If anything, your obtuse comment definitively proves that.

  2. Frank Lopez says:

    Great review. Hate movies that portray the white savior, helping the inferior minorities. Cornball white liberals love these movies. If I were black these type of movies would probably embarass me greatly.

    • Hewhosisthere says:

      If the democrats have come such a long way, why do they insist on treating poc like children? Why do they insist on playing identity politics instead of voting on the issue? You sit there and sneer at Donald Trump, our next president I’ll remind you, yet the fact that you think he’s racist or sexist speaks volumes of the intellectual capacity you posses, or lack thereof. I’m a registered democrat but even I see how toxic and far down the left has sunk. I bet you believe in white privilage too, or you think black lives matter is a legitimate civil rights group. Its funny that you demonize a whole group because you disagree with them, and yet applaud yourself as being progressive and tolerant.

    • Karl says:

      INteresting pespective from a person whose comment shows so clearly exactly WHY these movies are so important and so needed–to remind us that even now, there are racist people with racist attitudes who blithely whitewash the sins of history and prefer to bury their heads in the sand, claiming that all is well in their lily white world’s perspective.

  3. Jones says:

    I heard this is a true story. still i didn’t watch the movie. after the read of this article i think i should watch this movie thanks for article.

  4. Karl says:

    This review and the reviewer’s disgustingly cynical opinion had me frothing…if anything, this movie didn’t “remind me what a good Liberal I was” (to paraphrase his unfortunate choice of words); no, more like it reminded me of how truly despicably evil the side of humanity which most accurately charactierizes modern Conservatism is, and why it is SO important to make movies like this which remind us that if we don’t learn from our past, we are doomed to repeat it. This movie was AWESOME< incredible, and VERY moving. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. PS, Variety: dump this loser of a reviewer.

    • James says:

      AMEN😉😉😉

    • Ryan says:

      All that white guilt is clouding your judgment. This isn’t a movie that should’ve been made in 2016. I’m just hoping McConaughey makes a comeback with the movie Gold later this year

      • Karl Logan says:

        ….as your latent racism is clouding your judgment, Ryan. If not today, then when? When the burgeoning White Power movement has elected its new Fuhrer, Trump? When more Black voting rights are “surgically targeted” and rescinded as was recently found in North Carolina? Or when one more innocent Black man is shot by a paranoid, PTSD-stricken ex-vet white policeman?

        The sad truth is that for people like you, Ryan, there would NEVER be a “right time” for this movie to be made because you’d rather just go on believing in the fantasy that allows you to sleep soundly at night when men of higher conscience and better morals know that there is a real problem in America. This movie helps us to understand WHY.

  5. stevenjohnson says:

    In real life, the blacks and whites in Jones county trusted each other with their lives, just as every band of fighters in war do. Owen Gleiberman’s insistence that they had to spew at each other on screen is childish. It can only be explained by his tacit assumption that black is black and white is white, and ne’er the twain shall meet. He wants to believe that solidarity against the rulers is a fools’ dream. This is not a bad movie, it is one that offends his politics. His claim the movie invites us to feel good about how liberal we are fails miserably. The movie is quite clear that Reconstruction was counter-revolutionary and “we,” our country failed. The feel good liberal view is that Lincoln the political conciliator and unifier was the wiser man than the likes of Stevens, and that mercy instead of revolutionary tribunals was the highest achievement of a blessedly non-revolutionary peace. Gleiberman has every right to be too reactionary to enjoy this movie. He has no right to pretend his distaste has anything to do with esthetic judgment.

    • James says:

      AMEN!😉😉😉
      Thank God There Are Still Real People Alive! I also personally feel Matthew should receive an Oscar! I honestly didn’t really like him because of his cockyness. But he sure made me think twice about his Acting Abilities. perf!

    • Michael Brook says:

      The reviewer says, “the treatment is pious.” How else should one feel about an evil like slavery?

  6. Mike Smith says:

    “…what good liberals we are.”

    You must be completely ignorant of the role ‘liberal’ Democrats played in slavery and the Civil War.

    • Karl Logan says:

      The role of “liberal Democrats” during the Civil War means absolutely nothing. This movie’s relevance is to TODAY and the way in which we learn from History by understanding our past, and the name of the party or the people is wholly unimportant—it is the ATTITUDE which we must confront and combat, and THAT deplorable attitude is wholly invested in, and represented by, Conservative Republicans today.

    • Michael Brook says:

      They actually referred to themselves as “conservatives.”

  7. Alice says:

    I was prepare to vigorously defend the movie but after seeing it I sadly have to admit the story could have been handled better. Anyone that knows the actual story might feel as I do that that the court case should have started the movie and gave raise to the rest of it. I did however think Mathew McConaughey did a decent job with the material provided. I only wish the movie had been more storytelling and less like a preachy documentary.

  8. You don’t like it ‘cuz it’s preachy in a Biblical fashion, the protagonist’s indignation arising from his presumably Christian faith. Sort of irritates you, nibbles at the corners of your moral relativism, rubs you the wrong way, doesn’t it? That’s good enough for me–think I’m gonna go see it.

    • Jonathan says:

      That’s not what he wrote, Richard. He has no problems with faith. He’s saying the “crowning lines of moral fervor” are heavy handed and preachy, which detaches the audience from the characters. The entire trailer is McConaughey speechifying, with no sight of an arc. That’s a tough way to sit through two and a half hours. You’re supposed to leave the theater feeling something. When you’ve been “told” something, it’s not the same. Goes in one ear and out the other.

  9. Mick says:

    I don’t know what movie Gleiberman saw but it must not have been the same one I saw tonight. Free State of Jones was the best film I’ve seen this year – by a long shot. McConaughey’s performance was naturalistic mastery, Mahershala Ali rips your guts out and Gugu Mbatha Raw, your heart. A powerful movie. I’ll be seeing it again.

    • Dallas says:

      Wait, the premiere was last night in Los Angeles I believe. So you went, Mick? You must be a pretty important guy. What are you doing here arguing with Gleiberman? Spinning???

  10. michael says:

    MM should stick to talking to his imaginary car friends.

  11. anthony says:

    In reply to Millerfilm’s query: “How can this film possibly have TWENTY-THREE producers??!!” Most are from STX’s company, who did nothing!! But were paid by adding their fees in the budget!!! So much for the probably, NOT back-end participants. Look for all the future STX’s films to have the same continuing STX’s producers getting producers credit and adding their fees for doing nothing in the budgets. What else is new!! Welcome to Hollywood’s MO of getting undeserved credit and accounting!!

  12. Daryle says:

    I can’t WAIT to see this movie, and I hope people won’t be dissuaded by this reviewer! What happened in Jones County had an impact long after the war, and I would quote from the back cover Victoria Bynum’s new HISTORY book (The free state of Jones: Mississippi’s longest Civil War) – “there developed a mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War ended, and the ambiguous racial identity of their descendants confounded the rules of segregated Mississippi well into the twentieth century.”

    Critics really ought to check out their history, whenever they write a review of a movie based on actual events. This is not the first time recently where I have been incensed by a review of a film based on history. Reviewers did the same thing with Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea.” They more or less led people to believe they were going to the movie to see the Ahab/Ishmael Moby Dick story and were disappointed, but the movie was really the true story of the tragedy of the Essex, and was actually pretty faithful to history. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am sorry it end up tanking at the box office.

    People should check out Bynum’s book, which has had excellent reviews, and I hope they’ll give the movie a chance. Comes out Friday, I believe.

    • Michael Brook says:

      I saw it and I like it. I checked out the history before + after I saw it. Some things, I thought, ‘nah, they’re pumping him up, appealing to modern sensibilities.’ But when I looked – it did happen. e.g., Knight did save a little black boy from “legal slavery.”

    • Mike says:

      Sounds like a movie for history nerds. I’m in.

  13. dave says:

    is this a review or a summary?

  14. irwinator1992 says:

    I’m shocked by how disappointing this movie was. C’mon guys, we’re seeing Swiss Army Man!

  15. My sister saw the movie and told me it’s terrible and stupid,I’m crushed I always like Mcconaughey.

    • Karl Logan says:

      I a word, your sister lied. The movie is fantastic and perhaps it was her discomfort at being forced to confront the ugly history and legacy of our oppressive, brutal past that left her leaving the theatre with less than a spring in her step. Not a movie for cowards, that’s for sure.

    • Marie says:

      And he can act, he just need good material.

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  16. millerfilm says:

    I wouldn’t be expecting an edgy film from Gary Ross.

  17. Rex McGee says:

    How can this film possibly have TWENTY-THREE producers??!!

  18. Joi Karen says:

    WHEN is this airing? I have looked all over to find out and cannot seem to get this answer. Has it already aired? If not, someone who knows, kindly let me know which channel and when. Thanks.[because the trailer looks amazing, riveting]

  19. There are more than a few history related comments, not directly connected to film review, here that made me go looking for a book. James M. McPherson’s For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. Well worth a read.

  20. EricJ says:

    Although looking at the trailer, I kept thinking, “Didn’t we just HAVE a crazy Southern embattled-farmer gun-toting standoff just recently in real life, and….no one in the world was on their side?”

  21. Mike says:

    I’ve read the Jenkins&Stauffer book about the Free State of Jones. Well, it’s a damn shame if Gary Ross didn’t pull this off as the story of Newt Knight is probably one of the most fascinating, long forgotten episodes in American Civil War history. I saw Ross’ website for background reference material and it is brilliant. Every historical movie should now come equipped with such information.

    However condensing Knight’s incredibly complicated (and long) life into 2 1/2 hours did seem to me like an impossible feat. More mini-series material to do the man justice. Nevertheless, I’ll be there opening night. Newt and Rachel Knight were the ultimate badasses and I’ll be there to pay my respects.

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