Free State of Jones and all the images you see in this review are owned by STX Entertainment
Directed by Gary Ross
Good old STX Entertainment! They’re the little studio that’s trying so hard to be a respectable outfit, and sure enough they do have some good films under their belts like Hardcore Henry and The Boy… but then they also did Secret in their Eyes, which… yeah. Let’s not go there again. I hear The Gift is good at least! Anyway, they’re latest effort is the quote, unquote, HISTORICALLY ACCURATE film based on a the man who started a rebellion within The Confederacy during the Civil War. Does STX Entertainment have another notch in their belt with this Matthew McConaughey led biopic, or is this another disaster like… that one movie they made? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the tale of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), an army doctor for the Confederate Army who knows that they’re fighting and dying for rich white dudes to keep slaves. Well, that and to keep the status quo of dehumanizing black people, but I’m SURE that’s not crossing any of these poor farmers minds as they march forward into battle. It’s certainly not on Newton’s mind, THAT’S for sure! Anyway, when his… relative (I think his nephew) gets shot and killed in the battlefield, he deserts the army and goes home to deliver the dead body to his sister and to see his wife and son again. Eventually, he makes his presence known to local Confederate tax collectors (or rather Looters) when he starts stopping them from collecting way more than ten percent of the local farmers’ goods and is forced to hide out in the swamp with escaped slaves to wait out the war I guess; one of whom is Moses (Mahershala Ali) who is looking for his family and becomes a lifelong friend of Newton. At some point though, Newton is unable to sit still any longer and ends up turning the runaway slaves and other deserters into a functioning society within the swamp that apparently the Confederates are completely unable to overtake and they soon become a huge thorn in their side as they start raiding supply wagons and burning rich peoples’ stuff. That’s only half the movie though as eventually the war does end and we transition from the armed rebellion to Newton fighting for the rights of his fellow citizens who are now FORMER slaves in an area this not too happy about that. So how exactly did Newton manage to outlast the Confederate army throughout the rest of the Civil War? Are he and his friends any safer after the war than they were before? Does Matthew McConaughey have a beard, or did something die on his face?
For this first half of this movie, it was a boring and pretentious mess; an imitator of better films with no clear idea of what the hell it wanted to be. It’s slow and plodding, but then it jumps around in time without warning. The cinematography is washed out, grim, and lacking vibrancy, yet the story it’s trying to tell in this style is about as arch as an episode of GI Joe. It has a large cast of characters with their own stories and historical significance, but the movie wants to focus entirely on Matthew McConaughey and is damn near propagandistic with its depiction of that character. Whether or not he was such a good person in real life, there are very noticeable tricks of visual storytelling that are intentionally manipulative and make it even harder to take any of this seriously. Thankfully, the movie changes gears dramatically in the second half to the point that it’s an entirely different movie, and while I won’t say it’s perfect, it’s better than the movie we got at first. This film miscalculates what its hook is, which is supposedly the swamp rebellion within the Confederate South, and so the movie gets bogged down in maudlin heroics when it COULD have focused on the more interesting story of the Reconstruction Era’s attempts at unifying the country in the aftermath of the war. If they had the courage of their convictions to focus on that part of the movie (which is the only time they don’t try to tie poor white people’s struggles with that of slaves), we might have had a flawed but powerful movie about standing up for freedom in the face of unimaginable adversity. Instead, they split the difference and included this brain-dead and overly self-important Pablum in the first half of this overlong snooze-fest.
With movies that are BASED ON A TRUE STORY (I’m really starting to hate those words), we have to inevitably ask if the story decisions made throughout the movie were in service to historical accuracy and whether or not being historically accurate is a justifiable excuse for any flaws in the pacing, structure, of the story and the characters in this. My main argument here though isn’t necessarily the specific details of what happened but rather how it is presented and framed by the filmmakers. Did the Confederate army hang people who surrendered and left the rebellion even though they were promised a full pardon? I have no idea. If it’s NOT true, that’s kinda messed up for the filmmakers to present it as such, but that’s not the biggest problem. The filmmakers intentionally (and rather sloppily considering how easy it is to point this stuff out) omit details and shoot scene differently so as to glorify some actions that one side takes when similar actions the other side takes are downright evil. There’s just no god damn subtlety here! The opening scene has Confederate soldiers marching into battle and getting blown to pieces. The gore in this scene is EXTREMELY graphic as one dude has his face blown off, and at least a dozen others have their guts spilling all over the place. This sets up a very strong tone about the futility and cost of war, yet LATER in the movie when Newton is leading his merry band of defectors through the streets, the gore is COMPLETELY gone which undercuts that tone they so wonderfully set up in the beginning, thereby robbing their actions of those consequences and making them seem more righteous. The biggest issue that Newton and his crew have against the Confederate Army is that they’re taking too much of the citizenry’s food and supplies to fund the war effort, so they then proceed to rob their caravans and raid wealthy plantations; never once questioning whether they have a right to be taking other people’s stuff (McConughey givers like five speeches about how a man gets to reap what he sows and no one else should take that from them) or how this is going to affect the rank and file soldiers out in the battlefield. Did ANYONE making this movie realize that the people they were SO desperate to humanize are the ones who don’t get to eat now!?
Hell, after that initial scene of the soldiers working together and dying as brothers for a cause they may or may not believe in, they’re just completely forgotten. After the opening scene, the Confederates are represented entirely by an evil commander, his personal sycophant, and like twenty dudes who pillage without remorse. This cartoonish representation of GOOD GUYS and BAD GUYS in the time of war wouldn’t be so annoying though if they bothered to lighten the damn movie up and didn’t push so hard on the whole grim and gritty history angle. They chose to shoot this as naturalistically as possible which is what you want to do when you’re making something that reflects the real world, but to then pull cheap shit like the Confederate commander use silverware (GASP!) or to have a big fight scene where the BAD GUY’S only recorded kill is a VERY clear shot of a women getting shot in the head (never mind that the GOOD GUYS just murdered fifteen husbands and fathers) completely clashes with the supposed historically accurate tone they’re going for. The Confederate South did some absolutely heinous shit but the movie loses a lot of its bite by being so loose and manipulative with its screenplay and film making choices that paint them as more cartoonish than is needed.
On top of that, the movie chooses to also make this yet another story about a white hero speaking for the black people out there who can’t stand up for themselves. This may be where the BASED ON A TRUE STORY thing makes things a bit muddled as it seems clear from the modicum of research I’ve done on this guy that Newton really was a bad ass who fought for the rights of all men, but it goes back to the decisions the filmmakers made in how to stage scenes, in which characters get the most screen time, and in sugarcoating the overall peace that there was between the slaves and the poor whites in this rebellion. These issues in particular though are handled much better in the second half which is about the Reconstructions period, particularly because Moses and the black actors get a lot more screen time and personal motivations, though that may be due to the fact that the poor white farms just disappear from the movie (giving them less competition for the spotlight) and are replaced by racists ass white folks. I mean, there’s PROBABLY some overlap there, but it only points out how toothless the first half is that it feels like we’re not even watching the same community when we shift to the second half. Still, I do like a lot of what they do in this section of the movie as it feels more grounded in its depictions of the South’s atrocities, and it has some genuinely heart wrenching moments because of that.
Now all that is why I didn’t particularly care for the movie, but there are things this movie does on a more fundamental film making level that are worse than all of that. Its mind numbingly boring and it’s HORRIFICALLY edited. I know I’ve said throughout this entire review that this is two separate movies, but there’s actually a third movie sandwiched in here which is about a court case in the late 1940s where a descendant of Newton Knight is on trial for marrying a white women while being an eighth black. By the end of the movie, it makes sense and I think it’s a good way to cap-off the story of Newton’s life, but it’s inclusion in here is so poorly placed that it pulls you right out of the movie when we’re watching something in the 1800s and then cut to the 1940s. We see a courtroom scene for the first time about a half hour into the movie, and then I think we see it once more twenty minutes later, but then it’s dropped ENTIRELY until the last twenty minutes or so when we’re cutting back and forth regularly between Newton and the future courthouse. And like I said, it’s not until the end of the movie that this starts to make sense and sort of tie into Newton’s story and it’s too late by then for this to have been anything more than a baffling distraction. That’s not the only place where the editing is awful. Throughout the movie, we’re jumping through time, but then we’re going slowly here. Something happens off-screen, but then it’s brushed to the side because we’re moving five years into the future. At one point, Newton’s gang goes from about twenty dudes to a damn battalion of well-armed farmers. There’s a part of them movie where they set up a HUGE battle that will take place at some point as the rebellion’s last stand against the Confederate army, but then we cut ahead and the war is over. I don’t even know if the battle took place or if the war ended before the Confederate army could arrive!! Moses’s family is in Texas, but all of a sudden they’re running to each other in a field!? How did they even get there!? The movie ends up moving too damn fast for us to get a firm grasp on what the hell is going on, yet it STILL manages to spend so much time on nothing which is the main reason why it’s so damn boring. How many scenes do we need to see of these farmers sitting around camp fires doing nothing? How many reading lessons do we need in a movie? Seriously, there’s like four scenes of people trying to learn how to read. McConaughey gives the same damn speech like six times in the movie, and yet they mean nothing because this supposed Free State of Jones gets dismantled the moment the war ends! The film making doesn’t do it much favors either as the naturalistic aesthetic means that when we’re sitting around doing nothing, it’s not even pretty to look at. Okay, that’s a bit unfair. Let’s use that to transition into what I did like about this. I wouldn’t say the cinematography is boring. Hell, it looks REALLY good at points when the movie gets going (a funeral shootout is the highlight here) but it’s not up to say Iñárritu’s level which is why the long stretches of nothingness in The Revenant were tolerable but less so here.
The acting across the board is just fine with McConaughey getting the most to do as he is the guy who gets to be on the poster, but I thought the real breakout here was Mahershala Ali as Moses. He’s not wasted as much as a lot of other characters who get more screen time but don’t do anything with it (SO many scenes of people sitting around camp fires!) and he really comes into his own as he nearly steals the movie away from McConaughey in the second half. Honestly, there are not enough good things I can say about that second half compared to the first. It still jumps around way too much, but by then the focus is less on Newton’s character and more about Reconstruction itself, so it doesn’t feel AS jarring when things are all over the place. It also has a lot more to say as it feels very relevant to modern day issues of racism, disenfranchisement, and voter repression, while the first half was all about how awesome it is to camp out in the wood. Okay, it had a BIT more going for it, but it’s really light compared to how dense the themes get in the second half.
It’s a shame that this movie turned out as lousy as it did considering this is a generally good studio working with a genuinely good actor to bring a script that the writer/director Garry Ross has been working on for a decade. It feels like a movie that took for granted that its subject matter alone could carry it as a feature film (stop criticizing history bro!) but it just goes to show that the film making process is more than just the story it’s telling; it’s HOW it tells it. It might be worth checking out for the parts that do work, but it absolutely should not be seen in a theater, especially considering that you can fast forward through the boring parts once you get it at home. Hell, just jump straight to the halfway point. You won’t be missing much.
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