REVIEW – “Free State Of Jones” Is Gary Ross’ Weakest Film
Not even Matthew McConaughey’s excellent performance can save Free State of Jones from being an epic bore.
Matthew McConaughey’s Excellent Performance:
Matthew McConaughey (True Detective, Dallas Buyers Club, and Interstellar) provides another excellent performance as Newton Knight, a man determined to help others no matter what the consequences are. Most of the humorous one-liners and scenes work as a result of McConaughey’s naturally likeable charisma and solid comedic timing. These skills are most evident when he teaches a group of young girls how to use guns so that they can protect their land from the clutches of the Confederates. While some may see this scene as an advertisement for the NRA, in its own context it both hilarious and memorable.
As for his emotive work, McConaughey makes it convincing that Newton Knight genuinely cares about the well-being of others enough to suffer what they do. His character’s journey is the anchor which prevents this from being a terrible film.
Other Likeable Characters:
Other than Newton Knight, there are only two other likeable characters, Moses (Mahershala Ali) and Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Both of these characters suffer greatly at the hands of white men who are willing to perform unspeakable acts. Rachel’s master takes advantage of her secretly. Moses has his child abducted from him and sold into slavery. Because Mahershala Ali and Gugu Mbatha-Raw both give convincing performances, their suffering matters to the audience.
Effective Instance of Violence:
While Gary Ross rarely flinches from the brutal violence, there is one particularly memorable instance of implied violence that will haunt audiences long after the conclusion. Because Ross frames this instance of gore carefully, implying more than he actually shows, this makes it the most effective violent scene. This in turn, helps build up momentum for a scene in which Newton Knight leads a group of people to kill those responsible. It is worth noting that the gore in the first battle is more than enough to earn its R-rating.
Set during the Civil War, Free State of Jones tells the story of defiant Southern farmer, Newt Knight, and his extraordinary armed rebellion against the Confederacy. Banding together with other small farmers and local slaves, Knight launched an uprising that led Jones County, Mississippi to secede from the Confederacy, creating a Free State of Jones. Knight continued his struggle into Reconstruction, distinguishing him as a compelling, if controversial, figure of defiance long beyond the War.
Structural Issues/Overstuffed Plot:
Writer-director Gary Ross is known for writing and directing The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit, and Pleasantville, ambitiously tries to cover a timely historically-based story in Free State of Jones. Yet, Ross makes several mistakes in how the story is structured. In the opening act, the audience meets a young boy, Daniel, that fled the army he was assigned to so that he could be with Newton Knight. From the moment, Daniel comes onscreen, the audience knows he will die: he is terrified of being a soldier. Rather than developing why the audience should care about this relationship, Ross kills Daniel off within minutes of his entrance into this film. Oddly, this is the inciting incident. Newton Knight heads back home to show Daniel’s parents the boy’s corpse so that they can have closure. Because the inciting incident is not worth investing in, the entire story begins askew.
One of Ross’ greatest mistakes is making this a five-act film. Free State of Jones is 2 hours and 19 minutes, yet it feels like it was originally a five-hour miniseries on television. Most of this film takes place during the Civil War, but a subplot in this film takes place 85 years later as a man who is accused of being 1/8th black is told that he cannot legally marry a white woman. While this subplot allows Ross to tackle another social issue, what constitutes a legal marriage, the direction of these scenes is too stilted to make them remotely entertaining. This extra plot line is one of the many that needed to be trimmed so that this film could tell a coherent single story, rather than five disjointed stories.
Uninteresting Supporting Characters:
Free State of Jones ultimately fails to work because there are three likeable characters, but none of the rest are well-developed or do enough to matter. Even the villains are one-dimensional and forgettable. While Ross could have provided some insight into the Confederate’s motivations through a few extra scenes to increase the richness of the conflict, he prefers to present them as purely evil.
Keri Russell’s Weak Performance:
Keri Russell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) portrays Serena, the first wive of Newton Knight. Considering her acclaimed work in The Americans, it is shocking that she has no lasting impact. Not only is her character hardly included, but Russell’s performance is monotonous and underwhelming. It is always a shame to see a talented actress typecast as a wive that has little-to-nothing to do.
Free State of Jones tackles ambitious social issues and boasts an excellent performance from Matthew McConaughey. That being said, the overstuffed plot, poorly-structured story, uninteresting supporting characters, and Keri Russell’s weak performance make this an epic bore.