Free State of Jones (2016)
Director: Gary Ross
Writer: Gary Ross, Leonard Hartman
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Bill Tangradi
Free State of Jones leads us through the brutal world of 19th century America, in a film wrought with emotion, injustice and cruelty.
Gary Ross’s Civil War epic is the true story of a Southern farmer who, after deserting the Confederate Army, helped to found an independent region of Mississippi, along with a band of local farmers and former slaves who refused to align themselves with the corrupt Confederate government. Ross’s film depicts the American Civil War in all its atrocity and is a stark portrayal of its effect on the American people. An opening battle, not for the squeamish, immediately introduces the physical brutality of the war while, as the film continues, the spreading misery and despair of the war is plainly revealed. Free State of Jones refuses to pull its punches from the word go. Don’t expect an easy ride.
After his Oscar win for his role in the sensational Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and his fantastic performance in the sci-fi masterpiece Interstellar (2014), Matthew McConaughey has proven once again that he is a force to be reckoned with, delivering a powerful performance as Newton Knight, the aforementioned Mississippi farmer. In a film characterised by defiance and tragedy, McConaughey stuns as he ardently channels both of these themes through his character. The film does well not to idolise Knight as a hero; rather McConaughey’s depiction of Knight as a simple man with simple values helps ground the film, containing it and preventing it from spiralling off into a fantastical crusade. Mahershala Ali is brilliant as the victimised but inspirational Moses, acting as a personification for the injustice and racism at the heart of the civil war, while Gugu Mbatha-Raw serves wonderfully as one of the film’s softer elements, also keenly demonstrating the struggle of African American’s during the 1800s, while also symbolising their resolve and spirit.
In a bad two-for-one deal, there is a side-story in Free State of Jones, sporadically shown throughout the film as a series of short flash-forwards - seemingly included to illustrate the ongoing issues of racism and bigotry in 20th-century America. Unfortunately, this side-story’s inclusion amounts to very little, failing to enrich or complement the story in any meaningful way, only distracting from the main body of the film, sometimes even hamstringing its momentum. If this story had perhaps been given more weight and a chance to run parallel with the main story, rather than simply piggy-backing onto it, this could have afforded the audience an opportunity to settle into the story and identify with the characters, and may have resulted in this aspect of the film having more of a material impact.
Apart from the slight miscalculation with the side-story, what remains of the film has been expertly devised. Free State of Jones is delicately arranged, each aspect of the story flowing fluidly and organically into the next. Never forced into place, or bridged with messy embellishments, the (main) narrative is perfectly aligned and weighted. Free State of Jones doesn't want to be a hyper-realistic account, nor does it want to be a sweeping epic, preferring to afford its focus to the most important aspects of the story; to prevent it from feeling rushed (the film does, after all, span more than a decade), the film includes real photographs, along with brief subtitles to link the story’s different stages, keeping the film from becoming too lengthy or convoluted. It is a remarkably efficient use of its 2 hour and 19 minute runtime.
In its entirety, Free State of Jones is a brutal but satisfying watch, as cruelty and injustice are countered with compassion and defiance. A committed cast and an almost perfectly weighted story are the key ingredients in this exciting civil war drama.
In one line: Despite some distracting flash-forwards, Free State of Jones is an immersive and often harrowing tale of defiance in the face of corruption, delivered with a fluid story and a fantastic cast.