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Free State of Jones (Matthew McConaughey) - Review

Free State of Jones

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

THE true story of Newton Knight, a blacksmith turned Confederate stretcher bearer who eventually deserted and led a rebellion against his own commanders during the American Civil War, is as fascinating as it is remarkable. Alas, the film version of these events struggles to fully do justice to the complexity of the story it depicts.

Free State of Jones is by no means a bad film. Indeed, it’s anchored by another memorable lead performance from Matthew McConaughey. And the insights it affords into Civil War politics, both during and after the fighting took place, are eye-brow raising and certainly relevant to America – if not the world – today.

But director Gary Ross finds himself having to cram too much in, which makes his decision to include a contemporary courtroom sub-plot involving one of Knight’s descendants all the more frustrating.

The film picks up mid-war, in the wake of the bloody Battle of Corinth, which prompts Knight to desert the army in order to do the right thing for his own family rather than fight on behalf of the cotton farmers whose profits are being protected by the blood of those less fortunate.

Once home, he becomes a wanted man and is forced to take refuge in the southern Mississippi swamp, where he is taken in by a small group of runaway slaves aided by Rachel, a house slave owned by a local planter (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Saddled with the knowledge that his own wife and child have left him, Knight soon becomes romantically involved with Rachel.

But as his reputation for standing up for the rights of his fellow countrymen grows, Knight finds himself the unlikely leader of a rebellion against the Confederate Home Guard and State politicians, whose tyrannical policies are placing a strain on honest farm-folk. A guerrilla war ensues, which eventually leads to Knight forming a new independent state (named after the county he and his fellow fighters hail from).

But as the Civil War comes to an end, Knight continues to find himself at odds with authority, as the new anti-slave laws being imposed by the North are interpreted in sly fashion by the South, while hardship and poverty continues.

With so much story to tell, the decision to intercut some of this with a modern-day legal case involving an inter-racial marriage feels unnecessarily ambitious and is to the detriment of the smooth flowing of the film, especially as it leads to an over-simplification of some of the more complex issues concerning the historical events at play.

Knight’s own personal life, for instance, is glossed over. For while latter scenes see him living with both Rachel and their child, as well as his former wife and first-born son, there’s no real attempt to explore the tension this may have caused. And the film neglects to point out that Knight went onto have several children with both women.

Some of the issues the film raises concerning the welfare and rights of slaves post-war also feel rushed; touched upon by way of quick conversation and then discarded a little too cheaply. While the overly Christian outlook of the film sometimes feels preachy and – again – comes at the expense of some of the more morally complex elements at play.

That being said, Free State of Jones does greatly benefit from a commanding central performance from McConaughey, who hints at the shades of grey in Knight that the script rarely explores. He is a towering presence throughout.

Mbatha-Raw is suitably feisty and resilient as Rachel, while Mahershala Ali gives similarly good value as a former slave named Moses, whose own story is equally as striking as Knight’s despite being given much less time. Indeed, it’s another criticism of the film that many of the events unfold from a largely white perspective.

In terms of look and feel, though, Ross nails the wastefulness of war and the sense of desperation and anxiety among Knight’s followers. And while seldom taking time to properly explore many of the points it raises, it does at least have the conviction to raise them, thereby emerging as a film that is likely to provoke some debate afterwards as well as research for those interested in finding out more.

As flawed as it certainly is, Free State of Jones still remains a worthwhile investment of anyone’s time.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 140mins
UK Release Date: September 30, 2016