The arrival of a historical drama in wide release in the middle of blockbuster season is the sort of rarity in today’s film release scene that should be cause for celebration, especially with a story as potent as the one at the core of Free State of Jones. While there’s plenty in the film to provide an engaging story, though, Free State of Jones ultimately fails to create a film that fully engages its material or its audience.
Free State of Jones opens with Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), who serves as a medic for the Confederates. He’s clearly motivated to help save lives, rather than end them, and while he may be enlisted with the Confederates, he has a notable contempt for the war itself. He sees it as an attempt by rich, white slaveholding Southerners to maintain their position at the expense of those beneath them socially. He eventually deserts the Confederate army and finds himself camped out with a group of runaway slaves in the swamps of Mississippi. With this group, along with help from a house slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Newt works to rally more poor farmers to protest the Confederate army’s treatment of those in Jones County. They eventually create their own “state” that, while not affiliated with the Union, is certainly willing to fight the same enemy.
The build-up in the film is interesting enough from scene to scene, as the film depicts the battlefield carnage unflinchingly. But there’s a serious lack of narrative flow to the events of the film, an issue that’s worsened by writer/director Gary Ross’ decision to insert Civil War-era photographs, onscreen text to explain various events and passages of time, and – most glaringly – occasional jumps forward in time 85 years that shows a descendant of Newt and Rachel on trial for participating in an interracial marriage. To be fair, the effects of the Civil War can certainly still be felt in this country today, so showing the long-term effects of events in the film isn’t automatically a bad idea. But in this particular case, it adds very little to the film – and also manages to reveal early on the relationship between Newt and Rachel, which is otherwise not given much to indicate the relationship has turned romantic.
As he has done in many of his roles over the past few years, McConaughey manages to ground the film with his performance. He gives a more than solid performance, thankfully avoiding many of the white savior tropes that tend to pop up with these roles. Unfortunately, in spite of being placed in a solid cast – most notably Mbatha-Raw, but also Mahershala Ali and Keri Russell – there’s little work done to generate the sorts of relationships necessary to make their interactions compelling.
There’s plenty of material in the film that should properly outrage its audience. Watching the second half of the film, where the racism of slavery gives way to other forms of institutionalized racism, certainly stokes some anger. But there’s no strong narrative point to its inclusion. It doesn’t lead anywhere; instead, Free State of Jones slowly trails off to the end of its two-and-a-half hour runtime.