IM Global/STX Entertainment
Screenplay written and directed by Gary Ross
Produced by Scott Stuber/Gary Ross/Jon Kilik
Story by Leonard Hartman
I’m a huge fan of summer movie season counter programming. I appreciate film studios that realize not everybody wants to see CGI heavy superhero blockbusters, sci-fi spectacles or hyper violent action movies. So they’ll throw out movies that are for audiences who maybe want a little more meat on their cinematic bones to chew on. So you think that FREE STATE OF JONES would be a slam dunk to draw in audiences. Well, reportedly it’s not and after having seen it for myself I know why. This movie wouldn’t have drawn in audiences no matter what season of the year it was shown. Matthew McConaughey gives it his all along with solid supporting work from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali and Keri Russell but it’s just not enough to sell the story which is at best rambling and at worst, downright confusing.
In the middle of the horrendous hell that is one of the most brutal and savage battles of the Civil War, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) watches as his son is killed. Knight promptly deserts from the Confederate Army and returns to his home in Jones County, Mississippi, hiding out in the swamp with other deserters and runaway slaves. Knight gradually becomes aware of the outrages committed against local farmers whose crops and livestock are stolen by the army who leave the rich plantations unmolested. Knight organizes the deserters, slaves and farmers into a very effective guerrilla militia and their reprisals against the Confederates cause such carnage that the Confederates actually have to turn their attention from the Union Army to try to deal with this threat.
Knight attempts to make a deal with the Union Army that is rebuffed and so, feeling as if he and his people have been abandoned by both sides, establishes the Free State of Jones. At least for about two minutes of screen time and then it’s quickly forgotten. Which left me disappointed as I found the concept of this truly ragtag and highly unlikely band of founding fathers attempting to form their own independent state amidst the turmoil of the Civil War a highly fascinating one. And like many fascinating stories, this one is based on events that actually happened. Indeed, a man named Newton Knight led a band of Confederate army deserters known as The Knight Company that fought against the Confederacy during the Civil War. Now that’s the story I wanted to see.
Unfortunately, FREE STATE OF JONES settles for being just another Great White Savior Movie as most of the movie’s running time is taken up with Knight establishing a post Civil War mixed-race community and his relationships with his black wife Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and his white wife Serena (Keri Russell). Some obligatory runtime is given to his friendship with Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali) an ex-slave who becomes Knight’s right-hand man and later on is instrumental in organizing free blacks to vote. There’s also an unnecessary subplot taking place 85 years after the events of the movie as one of Knight’s descendants finds himself in court defending his right to marry a white woman. The movie jumps all over the place and there are way too many scenes that start promisingly and then go nowhere. They just end abruptly and go onto something else, leaving me sitting there saying; “Wha hoppen?”
Despite the strong acting of McConaughey, Mbatha-Raw, Russell and Ali, the movie lacks energy and drive. Most of the cast we never really get to know at all and there’s far too many scenes of McConaughey standing around looking pained and heartbroken at the various injustices being committed against his black friends who he has come to love and acknowledge as his extended family. FREE STATE OF JONES is a movie with a lot of potential that left me frustrated as there’s actually a great story in there that should be told and I hope that someday it will be. Wait for this one to show up on Netflix or some other streaming service.