Free State of Jones – Film Review by Fran Winston
Directed by: Gary Ross
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell
Matthew McConaughey continues to eschew the frothy rom coms that made his name in favour of more hardcore dramatic fare and this is no exception. Based on the true history of Jones County in Mississippi it sees him tackle the role of Newton Knight who deserts the army after the 1862 Battle of Corinth to return home. Befriending a slave woman and learning that the Confederate Troops are seizing crops and livestock for taxes, he becomes completely disillusioned and vows to fight them. However when he helps a family resist a raid he is attacked by a dog and flees to a swamp where he meets several runaway slaves. Setting up camp the numbers rapidly grow as several other deserters and runaways make their way there and they eventually form the “Free State of Jones” of the title. Throughout the years he continues to fight inequality and eventually has a baby with a black woman named Rachel. The story of their struggle is intercut with the story of the pair’s great-great-great grandson, who is arrested under Mississippi’s miscegenation laws 85 years after the war. Seemingly at the time since he is of one-eighth black descent, under the state law of the day he is considered black, and not allowed to marry his girlfriend.
This movies heart is in the right place. However trying to tell two very heavy stories and intercutting them with each other effectively dilutes the impact of either. I was completely unaware of Knight’s story and that on its own could have made a very strong movie. Equally the story of his descendant’s trial would have made a decent enough flick. Unfortunately Ross seems to have been trying to cover all angles and in doing so you never engage fully with either tale. This is a shame as McConaughey is fantastic as Knight and all the supporting cast do sterling work. The 19th century scenes are beautifully shot and you absolutely get a sense of the desperation and claustrophobia those earliest Jones county settlers must have felt. Unfortunately it just always feels stilted as if they are waiting for the next cut to the more modern tale!
History buffs will enjoy this take on a little known story and the political impact it had and fans of McConaughey will be glad to see him continuing to stretch his acting chops. For many though this will seem too heavy and uneven to be truly enjoyable. Not a bad movie but it is trying to do much in its 140 minute running time and therefore never really succeeds in any of its objectives.