Free State of Jones – Film Review

Jones poster

The Jones in the title of the new American civil war drama from writer/director Gary Ross, Free State of Jones, refers not to a character but to Jones County, Mississippi.  This is where real-life, rebellious farmer Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) lived.

Jones County is also where Knight, a southerner, lead an armed rebellion against the Confederacy, earning both the respect and the disdain of those around him.  He wasn’t so much fighting for the Union, though his sympathies certainly sided more with the North than the South; he was fighting against the thieving practices of the Confederate soldiers who were basically stealing supplies from the locals.

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With a ragtag, motley crew of deserters and slaves hiding out in the nearby swamp, Knight and his rebel alliance would surprise the thieving soldiers by stealing the hogs and the corn and whatever else they had plundered, and redistributed the supplies back to the farms; a Robin Hood of the American South.

Legal orders allowed the soldiers to take 10% of a person’s belongings in order to feed the army and keep it on its feet.  A visit from the overzealous boys in gray usually resulted with a thorough stripping of all supplies on the farm, leaving local owners – usually women with children while their husbands fought in the war – with almost nothing, resulting with starvation by winter.

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Before establishing that rebellion, Knight had volunteered his services to the Confederate Army, working as a nurse, dodging bullets while pulling wounded bodies off the battlefield and back to the already swamped, bloodied medics.  He may come from the south, but it’s obvious from the conversation he has with others around the campfire, his allegiance is with his personal belief of what is right and wrong, not with the Confederacy.  “We’re all out there dying so that they can stay rich,” he states, referring to the plantation owners.  When a fellow soldier is killed on the battlefield, another soldier remarks, “He died with honor.”  “No, Will,” returns Knight, shaking his head.  “He just died.”

Even though the film runs an already lengthy 139 minutes, the story remains fragmented; it’s as though we’re watching an edited version of something that originally lasted much longer and was cut to a more commercially viewable length.  That’s not to say that what remains doesn’t work – there’s a lot to admire in Ross’ re-telling of this largely unknown but fascinating, real-life story – it’s just that when time jumps, you can’t help wondering what happened during those missing dates.  Imagine a TV mini-series lasting four consecutive evenings trimmed of at least two hours.  At a time when too many recent releases run way too long, here we have an epic length feature that doesn’t feel long enough.  It’s also shot with a standard framed lens rather than a letterbox widescreen, resembling more the look of TV than a big screen epic.

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Still, what remains holds your attention, and as the rebellious Newton Knight, McConaughey’s resurgence continues to rise.   By all accounts, the real Knight was a tall man with a large, towering frame, standing 6-foot-4 with a full beard; a physically imposing character that centered attention by sheer presence alone.  Even if you didn’t agree with him, you didn’t mess with him.  McConaughey, with his gaunt features, slighter frame and whispery, unkempt beard doesn’t necessarily possess the same physical attributes of the Jones County giant, but his calm, determined, unwavering manner of decency in the defense of those wronged feels just as assuring.  He’s the one you want on your side.

When Knight announces Jones County as a free state and declares to his followers the rules, they’re framed as fair, decent and in favor of the people, not for the benefit of the already wealthy.  “No man can stay poor to make another man rich,” he proclaims.  That sense of decency is also extended to the slaves.  “If you can walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.”

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Curiously, the film introduces a parallel story that takes place some eighty-five years later.  It revolves around a Mississippi court case of what state law unfairly perceives as a mixed-race marriage.  A descendant of Knight’s may or may not have lineage to a black slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman with whom Knight lived for many years after the war.  The jumps from the 1800’s to the twentieth century court room are not only infrequent, their total length of screen time is in minutes.  The case is compelling enough for audiences to want to know more, but these brief encounters with the 1900’s are so short and seemingly out of place, they feel less like an enhancement of the overall film and more like teasers to another story.  They intrude.  Their removal would not be missed.

Releasing a film like Free State of Jones buried among the mostly adolescent, widescreen summer features may seem as out of place as the inclusion of those brief, twentieth century court room scenes.  But despite its story-telling failings and those unnecessary moments exploring the legality of a mixed marriage, the opportunity of seeing a thoughtful film with adult content, character and a reflection of the human condition that is well-acted and presented with authentic looking, high production values of life during the civil war makes for a welcome relief among all the overstuffed, CGI-laden popcorn pleasers.  Nothing wrong with enjoying those summertime, crowd-appealing special effect adventures, but it’s good to have a choice.

MPAA Rating: R      Length:  139 Minutes    Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)

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