Movie Review

Film Review: FREE STATE OF JONES (2016): An Uneven Slow Paced Civil War Epic

Matthew McConaughey Free State of Jones

FREE STATE OF JONES (2016) Film Review, a movie directed by Gary Ross, starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Brendan Gleeson, Jacob Lofland, Brad Carter, Sean Bridgers, and Kirk Bovill.

Civil War films can end up being it’s own civil war when creating a historical epic and a drama, which seems to be the case for the film Free State of Jones. Directed by Gary Ross, the film struggles to tackle two things together: a Civil War movie and some facts on history with some morality. Free State of Jones manages to do both at times, but in the long run it loses focus on what the film should’ve been, which is a powerful story with emotion and heart.

The film also becomes too lengthy, especially towards the end as everything gets crammed together like a class assignment turned into homework. The film starts a little slow when introducing to our main hero Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) and where this man is coming from. Things start to pick up as the narrative moves along with what this man does with the free slaves and deserters as they form their own territory in the South. We learn a bit about what caused him to desert the Confederate army and end up becoming a leader to a bunch of deserters like himself, including runaway slaves.

Free State of Jones happens to be a great Civil War story that not many people are familiar with. It’s a story of courage and rebellion against a war that had driven a once unified country apart. Ross did his research when it came to learning about this man who formed an unusual army to fight against the Confederates. Ross went through great lengths to ensure the accuracy of Newton’s story while at the same time; he also tried to make this into a Hollywood film. Some of the characters were made-up for the story, but nonetheless, they served their purpose in shaping Newton’s story.

Matthew McConaughey excels as always portraying Knight and does so with finesse. He doesn’t just treat his character as a role but more like a piece of art. We see parts of his personality shine as Newton, who is a man of action and a born leader who can go a bit mad sometimes. We first see Newton in the heart of battle as he drags a wounded soldier to the battle camp as we witness the dangerous battleground and the effects it has on soldiers. We learn that there were two things that drove Newton out as a deserter: his nephew who was killed in battle and a new law that didn’t require plantation owners from going to war if they owned 20 or more slaves. In other words, the poor is forced to fight a rich men’s war.

When Newton returns home, he finds the Confederate army raiding farms for supplies like they own the place. After fighting with a superior when refusing an order, Knight goes into hiding with a group of runaway slaves in the swamp. They soon form an alliance to fight off against the Confederate army. Knight soon becomes close friends with the slaves’ leader Moses (Mahershala Ali) and forms a relationship with house slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who gathers information for the deserters and brings them food. Mahershala Ali shines as a former slave who stands up for his people while trying to find his family who were taken away by slaveowners. Even Gugu holds out on her own as a woman who wants to be educated so she can teach others in order to build a bright future for these runaway slaves.

Knight’s own community starts to increase with the number of deserters who join his cause. With this close-knit community, Knight and his people end up capturing a town as their own. He even declares that their piece of the country become independent and calls it the Free State of Jones. Knight even asks for help from the Union Army but never receives it, so he and the rest of his people are left to fend for themselves against the Confederates.

Ross manages to put in some excitement into the battle sequences and stand-offs as the film takes audiences into an unprecedented climax. The force that drives the movie ends up losing steam when the action cuts into a courtroom in the 1940s that focuses on Newton and Rachel’s descendant facing a similar predicament. Even though he’s white, he gets accused for having some African American blood in him and gets arrested for breaking the law by marrying a white woman.

This connects to the film, but only in little portions, which nearly kills the narrative. Ross tries to tell the aftermath of Newton’s struggle in the postwar era, which becomes just as worse as the war, especially with the rising tensions between white and black people. Ross is more attentive to detail with the changing times of the South as they go through the Reconstruction Era and the racial backlash that the black people faced during those times.

Free State of Jones is a story that needs to be told, but the structure of the film could’ve been tighter and stronger. It’s filled with passion, but at times it feels as if it’s coming off of a history class. There are some dramatic elements to it, but the pacing can be slow at times. McConaughey doesn’t get the chance to fully flesh out his character with only having a few cherished moments throughout the film. Ali shows charisma and his story is the most impactful while Gugu doesn’t get much opportunity to shine. The film does take advantage of shooting in Louisiana with its luxuriant country setting and the rustic sets and costumes.

Rating: 6/10

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About the author

Mufsin Mahbub

Mufsin is a freelance writer from New York who has a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism at Long Island University. He has written for publications like HollywoodLife, Clubplanet, and Heavy. He is an avid lover for everything related to TV and film. He has gone to dozens of film screenings, press events, and loves to attend New York Comic Con every year. He gives an honest opinion on every TV show or film that people are going to be talking about.

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