There’s a good movie inside Free States of Jones. Why wouldn’t there be? It’s a Civil War epic lead by Matthew McConaughey, still keeping the McConaissance strong, written and directed by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, the first Hunger Games) and featuring a variety of talented supporting actors, including Keri Russell, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Concussion) and House of Cards‘ Mahershala Ali, to simply name a few. The production design is authentically realized. The attention to time, detail and often character is simply impeccable. The real-life story is rich and long-spanning. But here’s the thing: it might just be too much for its own good.
There’s a lot of war-torn ground to cover here, a lot of story to develop. And while Ross has proven himself a storyteller with versatility and due-diligence, he might have given himself too much to handle here. His eyes are clearly bigger than his plate this time around, yet he’s always looking to grab seconds. He’s a hungry storyteller, certainly, but maybe he needed to ration his portions before he started chewing down.
Side note: why do so many of my allegories and metaphors involve food? Another question for another day, I guess.
In bringing the story of Newton Knight (McConaughey), a Southern Unionist that lead the Knight Company, a band of former Confederates and one-time slaves, and fought against the South during the height of the Civil War, to the forefront, there’s an admirably large amount of care and consideration placed into subject’s tale, hoping to make the film as historic, authentic, vast and appropriately violent as Knight’s real 1800s life. It’s a noble, heartfelt story, even when it veers into white-savior complex, and it does deserve to be told. But not this way.
Ironically, Free States of Jones is often at war with itself. Ross’ fourth film can’t quite decide if it should scope the entirety of Knight’s life or simply hit the broad strokes, ultimately settling somewhere awkwardly in-between. Ross’ screenplay either needed to be expanded into a four-to-six-part dramatic mini-series — something HBO would’ve picked up in a heartbeat, especially if their True Detective star was on-board — or condescended into a leaner, more agreeable feature-length film. The end product is clunky, if well-meaning, and one that loses its rhythm after its dutifully-made first 30 minutes. The resulting 139 minute movie feels unfocused and rushed, especially towards its scattershot last act, and unable to decide what it should tell and what it should leave inside the history books.
But it’s an unapologetically brutal film, no doubt, with violence and injuries that hit home. It’s also unafraid to move with a bit of a Southern drawl, but after its initial battle sequences, it lacks a cinematic approach. The shots feel unvaried and heavily reliant on medium shots, which unintentionally makes it feel like it truly is a mini-series condescended onto the big screen, as if it’s The Trip or something. True Detective looked more cinematic than this film, even season two. That, along with the fact that most of the cast — including McConaughey, arguably — are, indeed, TV stars. Ross’ film also lacks urgency, especially as the ensuing fights are uncomfortably fitted around each character moment. And it doesn’t help that it has, like, 12 endings, each more tiresome, strenuous and exasperating than the last. After a while, it’s as if you’re living with these characters in real-time, and not in the way the filmmakers’ likely intended.
Of course, McConaughey is as commendable as usual these days in the lead role, not afraid to dirty himself up with yellow teeth, a big ole’ dingy beard and smut all over his face and body. The film’s unsteady narrative doesn’t compliment his quietly-contemplative performance as much as it should, but the Oscar-winner makes the most out of it anyway. He’s a sturdy, strong-willed anchor, and bleeds his natural charisma into Knight’s plight with ease. It’s a good performance filled with powerful little moments, which helps carry Free State of Jones through its bumpier patches but never quite saves it from its overstuffed narrative and shoddy pacing.
Nobody, however, gives a bad performance. Everyone brings patience, strength and resilience to their true-life characters, and Mbatha-Raw and Ali are particularly moving. It’s a shame only those two, alongside McConaughey, really any get time to shine, especially as the always-likable and very-talented Russell is often thrown into the side and only introduced to the plot whenever it’s deemed necessary. They give the film impact when it’s lost, and they often provide heart when it’s needed most. It’s truly a shame this movie couldn’t have served their hard work better.
Free States of Jones will likely earn some enthusiastic admirers, notably from historians, history teachers and Civil War buffs. In fact, it’s bound to shown in some high school history classes, much like Glory and/or Gettsburg were before, and maybe the breaks between classes will make the film more agreeable and accessible to watch. As a single sitting, however, Ross’ latest is a disappointing misfire, an earnest-but-sloppy endeavor that could have been better, and should have been better, but never lives up to its fullest potential. The South will never rise again, but maybe this story should be given another shot. It’s one worth telling, but keep it on the small screen next time.