Review: Free State of Jones (2016)


In 1863, after witnessing abuses during the Battle of Corinth, Confederate Army nurse Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) deserts the Confederacy and returns home to his family farm in Jones County, Mississippi. However, after witnessing the Confederacy abusing the poor farmers of the county in favour of rich plantation owners, Newton begins a small insurgency against the Confederacy. Consisting of poor farmers and runaway slaves, his ragtag army manages to take four counties from the Confederate Army and becomes a small beacon of libertarian hope during the closing days of the Civil War.

Gary Ross’s Free State of Jones is a mess, but not one without merit. The film’s historical subject matter captures the complexity of the antebellum South without resorting to simple clichés at every turn. For instance, the film understands that economic injustice lies at the heart of so many of the Confederacy’s countless sins. As well, Matthew McConaughey is dependently excellent in the lead role, subduing his natural charisma in favour of perpetual outrage and cynicism. Too bad Gary Ross’s filmmaking fails McConaughey and, more importantly, the compelling subject matter.

Instead of using the story to correct simplifications about the historical South, Ross makes the wrong directorial decision at every turn. Or rather, he never makes a decision. Ross has no idea what kind of film Free State of Jones is meant to be. At turns, it plays as a Civil War epic, a ballad to libertarianism, a tragedy about the Reconstruction, a courtroom drama, and an interracial romance. For instance, a third into the film, Ross suddenly jumps forward 80 years to depict a miscegeny court case involving Newton’s great-great-grandson. Other scenes are bookended by text explaining historical events or Civil War photographs that are meant to provide context. However, instead of providing clarity, these intrusions distract from a coherent story arc. Structurally, thematically, and aesthetically, this is a misguided and muddled film.

At least Free State of Jones mostly avoids the pitfalls of the white savior period piece that plagues the average liberal Hollywood epic. Newton Knight is too complicated a character to reduce to a paternalistic progressive. However, the film arrives at a bad time. Sandwiched between the award-winning run of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Nate Parker’s impending The Birth of a Nation, which is likely to leave thunder and lightening in its wake, Free State of Jones plays like a sermon to a choir that has left the pews years ago.

Two decades ago, Free State of Jones might have felt fresh. But in 2016, audiences have no taste for well-meaning, but muddled diatribes about race and injustice, especially when they’re presented from the old-hat position of the white male. There’s a great film to be made about Newton Knight and his short-lived revolution, but Free State of Jones is not it.

4 out of 10

Free State of Jones (2016, USA)

Written and directed by Gary Ross; starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell.

This article was originally published on the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.