The Free State of Jones does a disservice to the lives it hopes to dramatize as well as the time of anyone unfortunate enough to end up seeing it.
There’s a sequence that repeats throughout The Free State of Jones no less than four times. A supporting character barely fleshed out beyond their relationship to Newton Knight, the bedraggled rebel Matthew McConaughey portrays, is killed and immediately we’re treated to lachrymose cutaways of the star stalking around in a dirty shirt looking real sad. Each death is more dramatic than the last, each pushing the limits of tragedy. Every injustice within the film only seems to matter insomuch as it makes Knight weep, because every horrific element of the Civil War and antebellum South are singularly focused around this compassionate white savior and how his stubborn dedication to revolution is somehow the height of heroism. In social justice terms, it’s an overlong epic that may as well have been titled When Being an Ally Goes Wrong.
The Free State of Jones concerns itself with the ongoing personal war of Newton Knight, a confederate soldier in Mississippi who, after a relative is slain on the battlefield, tells his superiors they can take their war and shove it. He first becomes a deserter before evolving into something of a colonial vigilante, defending poor families from soldiers taxing them into poverty. After a very public stand off with a cavalry officer, he retreats into the swamps to tend to the wounds inflicted upon him by rabid “nigger dogs,” where he befriends a small group of on the lam runaway slaves led by Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali). Their little squad steadily increases in number, as more deserters and Union sympathizers join Knight’s southern Neverland. His movement grows larger throughout the duration of the war before splintering off during the complex post-war landscape.
Along the way, Knight casually abandons his wife (Keri Russell) and son, before falling in love with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) a house slave he teaches to read. Yes, this is a movie where Matthew McConaughey teaches a slave to read and then gets her pregnant, right around the time he also moves his estranged wife and son in. It would be a great premise for a situational comedy in hell. (The less said about the film’s ridiculous framing sequence set 85 years in the future about the questionable race of Knight and Rachel’s great-grandson the better.)
Everything about this movie is infuriating. It brings little to no new observations to a tired era of period cinema, utterly content to trot out the same tattered story beats with the same dispassionate impersonation of giving a fuck about the darkest time in our nation’s history. The film takes for granted that we the audience hate slavery and instead devote precious storytelling energy to selling us on the plight of poor Southern whites, a marginalized group the film surmises had it just as rough as humans only considered to be worth three fifths of a person.
Knight, in another of his repetitive speeches dramatizing the barest minimum of human decency lionized as bravery, suggests that to the rich plantation owners this war is being fought for, “we’re all niggers.” It’s the “all lives matter” sentiment turned up to 11 on the “why won’t you just stop speaking forever” scale. The film, like so many others, neglects every opportunity to examine intersectionality and the ample shades of gray inherent to exploring race relations at any point in history to cleanly divide everyone into good whites and bad whites, heroes and victims. It would be easily swept under the rug and forgotten within moments of the end credits, if it wasn’t forged by a director star combo as potent as Gary Ross and Matthew McConaughey.
There’s not another actor working today with the intrinsic likability McConaughey possesses. His charisma is as certain as gravity, death and taxes. Even as Knight feels a paper thin liberal guilt Batman of sorts, he’s undeniably watchable. The writing gives him so little to work with yet he finds a way to make every moment of his screen time feel like a For Your Consideration ad with legs. No matter how maudlin the dialogue, he finds something human in it and sells it like Amway, foisting a sincere bond with his co-stars and the viewers through sheer force of will. If Knight was played by Christian Bale there would be no reason not to walk out thirty minutes in.
Similarly, Ross shows off the chops he’s honed for years, but never in a way effective enough to make up for the film’s boneheaded views and questionable observations. The action skills he picked up doing The Hunger Games are on display here, however. Both the opening battle scene and a crucial one that serves as the film’s most thrilling set piece provide a shocking visual presentation of war, swift and blunt in its depiction of violence. He even finds an affable amount of comic relief sandwiched in all the dread that makes parts of its two and a half hour runtime fly by faster than they should, but overall, his usual focus is sorely missed.
One of the film’s greatest injustices lies in a particularly frustrating scene about midway through. The romance between Knight and Rachel has blossomed to the point that Knight goes to make a move on her, but Ross frames it identically to an earlier moment before she’s raped off screen by her owner. This shot by itself has power, but what follows is the problem. Once Knight understands her hesitance and sees that she’s hiding brutal whipping scars from the last time she denied this man her body, we cut to a giant pile of cotton bales engulfed in flame as Knight walks away doing the cool guy pose from every summer blockbuster ever. We’re meant to applaud Knight for damaging the property of his romantic rival and one of the film’s principal villains, but that misses the point entirely.
It’s the system that is at fault and no matter how many people Knight shoots or how many things he sets on fire, neither he nor the film seem particularly concerned with the deeper underpinnings of this fiercely broken society. No combination of gunpowder and comforting aphorisms delivered in McConaughey’s dulcet Texan drawl are enough. By refusing to engage this knotty narrative in terms more complex than insulting platitudes about togetherness and misguided displays of masculine fortitude, The Free State of Jones does a disservice to the lives it hopes to dramatize as well as the time of anyone unfortunate enough to end up seeing it.