Matthew McConaughey continues his run of serious films to show off his acting chops with this movie based on the true tale of Newton Knight, an American farmer, soldier and Southern Unionist from Mississippi. So should you watch it? Is it any good? Read on to find out.
Coming three years after 12 Years A Slave, Free State of Jones touches on some similar subjects and comparisons are inevitable, rightly or wrongly. Gary Ross, he of The Hunger Games and Big, takes directing and writing duties from a story by Leonard Hartman (Gray Matter (short)).
Firstly, the story. We are in the mid – late 1800’s and Knight deserts from the army and ends up leading a resistance full of fellow deserters and former black slaves. This rag-tag band of troops punch above their weight and take on the Confederate army in various battles. This eventually leads to Jones County Mississippi being claimed by the group as a new country, one where black and white are free men.
The problem isn’t really with the story, it’s how much of Knight’s, and for that matter America’s, potted history with race and religion Ross and Hartman have tried to shoehorn in. Even giving the movie an over two-hour running time, this is a lot of subject matter to try and get through and provide the sort of relevant arguments/reasons/points that are required.
At times the movie almost slows to a halt, particularly around the thorny subject of Knight and his ‘romance’ with a former African-American slave Rachel, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Concussion, Jupiter Ascending). Whilst at other times the movie speeds through subjects that you could easily devote entire trilogies to, such as the KKK.
And the ending…what’s that all about. Talk about abrupt. Just as we’re informed that KKK violence is on the rise and the government pulls troops out the film ends, as if there’s going to be a sequel or something, it’s just bizarre. As if trying to take you through this vast part of America’s history isn’t enough. We are suddenly transported 85 years ahead to a court case featuring a descendant of Knight’s who is in trouble for marrying a woman in the State of Mississippi despite being one-eight black, which is against the law.
Phew! It’s not all bad though. Ross handles the camera beautifully and the swamps of Mississippi have never looked so enticing. McConaughey is as good as ever, it’s perhaps not his best performance but it is a good one. There’s a whole host of characters who come and go throughout with only really Mbatha-Raw sticking around and she performs her part very well. No-one else really gets the opportunity to shine.
The opening scene is also quite nice, although very reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan and ‘that’ beach scene. You have dead bodies everywhere, men being shot as they march towards cannons and guns without firing back, standing on their dead comrades. From the opening couple of scenes, you get the impression of a very different film from the one you actually end up watching. This does setup McConaughey’s character but this, plus the trailer which just features the gun-battles, are very different from the majority of the movie.
Overall this is an expensive film for the studios (estimated $50 million) and has average scores amongst the critics and public reviews. I’d go along with them. It doesn’t have the powerful emotions (nor the camera pointing at a tree for a few minutes) of 12 Years A Slave and tries to take on too much for one film, ultimately resulting in a light-touch throughout.