There’s very much that’s right about Free State of Jones, including being a movie that’s right on time right now. Its fervent belief that history is never black and white, but allows for all sorts of gradients in between depending on the angle you take to approach it, is tailor made to break out from the partisan cages of modern days. Gary Ross, whose script for Dave and whose previous directorial outings Pleasantville and Seabiscuit all explored the somehow unbreakable spirit of America in fighting against the odds and letting good old-fashioned grit and honesty take the lead, comes at the true tale of Newton Knight’s ragtag Civil War commune that defied the Confederacy with an almost Capra-esque hope: deep down, there’s a lot of good in America, if only Americans can rise towards their better angels. Knight, a Southern farmer who realized quickly that poor white Southerners were being used as Civil War cannon fodder to maintain the status quo, is a classic working class hero in the David-versus-Goliath tradition, standing up against the elite aristocracy of slave and land owners with a “don’t tread on me” attitude.
But this is one moment in history where no better angels were enough to save the freed slaves of Jones County, Miss., and this is one film where Mr Ross’s old-fashioned classicism lets him down badly. Though he has a cracking tale to tell (vouchsafed by a good many respected historians), and a suitably rugged hero to pull it through in Matthew McConaughey (simmering with Southern charm and stubborn determination as Newton Knight), Mr Ross gets lost in the swampy quagmire of predictable dramatic beats, compressed into an overlong highlight reel that seems to have lost most of its connecting tissue in the editing.
There’s an ill-advised parallel subplot set in the 1960s, with Knight’s grandson in court fighting a challenge to his marriage for supposedly being “of 1/8 negro blood” — since much of Free State of Jones is about the disenfranchisement of a working class by an elite, much more than about racism alone (even though it is an important part of the tale), this comes across at best as superfluous padding. Disjointedly jumping through the story’s chronology without supplying much in the way of context, its characters mostly reduced to walking archetypes whose sincerity is always one step short of inspirational bromides, Free State of Jones is a would-be wholesome tale of revisionist history where only its (white) hero seems to have a minimum of three-dimensional consistency. Everything else seems reduced to historically accurate but dramatically inert dioramas, carefully but bloodlessly reenacted, making this nicely mounted production the well-behaved cousin to the brash, feral, visceral approaches to the theme of Civil War/Reconstruction South of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave or even Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained; network drama or Masterpiece Theatre rather than edgy cable drama.
Mr. Ross, last seen steering the initial moments of the Hunger Games franchise, is usually not this ponderous, but here seems to settle for a purely functional history lesson whose value is never in doubt, but that is presented in the dullest, most conservative way possible, with all of the idealism but none of the energy of its lead character. It’s aware of the importance it may have for the current partisan debate about Southern history and identity, but it also subsumes any artistic merits it may have to its importance and message, close enough to being well-meaning Oscar bait (only it doesn’t come from any of the studios’ specialty units but from STX, a young upstart studio looking to fill the adult “mid-budget tier” the majors seem no longer interested in). It’s one of those films that may be “good for you”, but that as cinema isn’t simply good enough.
FREE STATE OF JONES
CAST Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell; DIR/SCR Gary Ross, from a story by Leonard Hartman and Mr. Ross; DP Benoît Delhomme; MUS Nicholas Britell ; PROD DES Philip Messina; COST DES Louise Frogley; ED Juliette Welling and Pamela Martin; PROD Scott Stuber, Jon Kilik and Mr. Ross; STX Entertainment (US), Huayi Brothers Pictures (CN), Bluegrass Films (US), Rahway Road Productions (US) and Larger Than Life Productions (US) in association with IM Global (US), Route One Entertainment (US), Union Investment Partners (KR) and Vendian Entertainment (US), 2016, 139 minutes