Title: Free State of Jones
Director: Gary Ross
Summary: As civil war divides the nation, a poor farmer from Mississippi leads a group of rebels against the Confederate army.
One of my major problems with historical movies and prequels is that you need to work twice as hard to be engaging and make your audience forget that they know how the story ends. The mark of a truly good historical or prequel will do this but it can kneecap a production if it fails. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to Free State of Jones, but I’m a history buff so the concept was something that I didn’t know much about. I’m always up for learning new things even more so when there is a chance for them to be politically relevant in the modern day.
Free State of Jones might be an interesting story, but the movie is so unfocused and poorly paced that it became extremely boring.
If you’ve seen any trailers for this movie then you probably think it’s about a bunch of Civil War deserters fighting back the Confederacy, but you would be wrong. While the freedom fighting is indeed a subject of the movie, it’s only about a third of the film and story they are trying to tell. In reality the movie is trying to cover almost a decade worth of events, or a century in a way, and doesn’t focus on one thing long enough to really mean anything, aside from a superficial level. The movie covers the freedom fighters but also post Civil War in the south and, weirdly, a court case 80 years in the future. The first time the movie made this jump it was so sudden and without context that I nearly got whiplash. The basis for the court case was interesting – the idea that someone could be mixed race even if you have to go back eight generations – but it felt out of place in this movie.
That is the problem with historical material sometimes; the real world isn’t structured like a movie. The best example is where the people of Jones find out that 1000 Confederate soldiers are going to march on them. There is a big dramatic speech and they fall back to the swamps to prepare for battle, only for the war to end in a text overlay with nothing happening. Now that might have happened in real life but this movie is not a documentary and movies follow plot lines and narratives that documentaries don’t have to. The set pieces are interesting but as a movie spread over two hours it got boring. By the time we see Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) living in a post war America and going against the rising tide of racism, we know how this ends. Not just because of the political standpoint in the modern day but also because of the court case the movie keeps cutting back to.
The entire production feels like it was trying to make a huge point. Maybe that was just because the Civil War ended and the world didn’t go back to being sunshine and rainbows. Maybe, also, that the world then wasn’t that different in the late 1800’s than it is now. Those are all great points to explore but the movie doesn’t linger on anything too long to matter. There is a great scene about the ‘apprenticeship laws’ that were basically forcing people back into slavery but the movie devotes almost no time to it. Those laws are interesting enough for a movie on their own, but Free State of Jones dedicates no time to it. The actors all do a great job with Matthew McConaughey being a compelling lead and Gugu Mbartha-Raw as our leading lady, but the movie breezes by without any time to learn anything. Keri Russell is there as Knight’s first wife who vanishes and reappears with barely a passing glance. A single mom raising a son in the midst of the Civil War and right after it? There is a movie there also, and no one touches on it.
Free State of Jones might have interesting history behind it but that history is better used as a documentary or a mini series. As a feature film it is unfocused, poorly paced and most damning of all? Sadly boring.