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Based loosely on the actual events of Jones County, Mississippi, this fictionalized story tells of a man named Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey). He is an orderly in the Confederate army that abandons his post only to find his home and the people around it under a heavy rule of taxation and abusive collectors. Under regulations to requisition goods for the fight, they leave local farmers with nearly nothing. Along with a new law that exempts men with 20 or more slaves from military service, an angered Knight gathers a band of famers and escaped slaves to create a free state in a Southern Mississippi swamp, loyal to the Union. It’s a powerful story told with some exceptional performances that has some compelling moments but doesn’t quite rise to the heights it should.
As does most war epics, Free State of Jones begins with the horrors of war. At the Battle of Corinth, we see horrific scenes of violence and learn that the medical tents are packed with the ravaged bodies of those in combat. Knight is dressed in white, soiled by red, who braves the battlefield to collect the wounded and rush them to the few doctors desperately trying to keep the soldiers alive. Of the dozens upon dozens crowded in and around the tents, we discover it is the officers who are treated first.
One day, a boy, barely a teen, and one of Newton’s kin, is conscripted into battle and finds Newton, terrified to serve. Newton tries to get him to safety but fails and the boy dies, but only after he is turned away by the medical tents who are too busy trying to save officers. Disgusted by it all, and choosing to take the boy back to his mother rather than stay where he is, he becomes a deserter. What he finds in his hometown is a people near starvation, in ruins by the collectors who take the household goods, food, and livestock of all the farmers. He also finds his wife (Keri Russell) tending to their sick boy, struck with a fever they can’t break as all the doctors are sent to the fight. Luckily, a nearby slave (not theirs) named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) uses herbs to tend the boy. She will have more important parts to play soon enough.
Now hunted for desertion, Newton cannot stay at home and escapes into the swamps with Rachel’s help, who leads him to a small band of escaped slaves. He befriends them and soon after is joined by a others leaving their military post. It’s not long after that more and more arrive and a community grows, safe in the depths of the swamps where the military might can’t penetrate. It’s a mix of white and black and while some tensions exists, are quickly overcome and the settlement grows.
They then take the fight to the Confederates, ambushing collectors and their stolen wares, sending a message that what is grown and tended by the people must be for the people. It does not go ever well. Newton’s community, now well stocked and heavily armed is basically a small army, and when the already weakened Confederates come for them, they are defeated. Soon after, Newton takes his army to them, and a number of altercations occur. Questions arise as to the purpose of the community, and there are consequences for some of Newton’s decision. One in particular, incurs a wrath from Newton, and in the fight that follows, a key officer on the Confederate side is slain.
This is merely the half-way point, and we see Newton’s movement gain a massive foothold in the southern counties and they raise the Union flag. In fact, as the war itself draws to a close and in the aftermath, we learn that they are an isolated band with no support, and Newton declares themselves their own free state, with their own rules for freedoms. But even when the war is over, there is always a fight.
Directed by Gary Ross, there is a lot to like about this historical drama but there are issues that set it back. While it certainly looks the part, there is an odd sense of inauthenticity to the feel of it, mostly stemming from a screenplay that builds its admittedly worthy story like a paint-by-numbers. Scenes unfold as if in obligation, and each are so saturated in melodrama it becomes burdensome. It has a lot to say but goes about it in broad strokes, propping up characters that are explicitly defined by their place in the story and have few chances to grow. As mentioned, there are some great performances, including McConaughey who as expected, delivers another solid performance. Confederate officers, played by Bill Tangradi and Thomas Francis Murphy are very well cast and do their best in the narrow lines in which they are allowed to remain. Mahershala Ali is a standout as Moses Washington, an escaped, proud and defiant slave who takes up arms beside Newton, and there are others as well who shine. All of them keep this watchable.
There is a subplot about a descendant of Newton that sporadically interrupts the main story and is testament to why the movie ultimately stumbles. It’s a needless distraction that attempts to pad this already compelling story to another direction. We learn that Newton is not a flawless figure, even taking up two wives (one of whom is Rachel) who both bear him children. It becomes too much and slows the pace and tone of the film. Free State of Jones tells an important story in American history and if anything, the film should invite further exploration of the events. As a stand alone film, it offers some great moments but is mostly a mediocre experience.
Director: Gary Ross
Writers: Leonard Hartman, Gary Ross
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Thomas Francis Murphy