If you saw Matthew McConaughey doing press or interviews last year at all, you probably would have noticed his haggard and scraggly beard he was rocking. Now, I’m probably not the first person who should be ragging on the state of anyone’s beard, as I’ve gone through some tough facial hair days myself, but even on-screen this is a weathered and wiry one. The reason behind the charismatic Southern Texas actor’s patchy facial growth is Free State of Jones, his new Civil War epic which teams him with Seabiscuit and The Hunger Games director Gary Ross, a film that opens pretty strong but slowly fizzles once we move past the first act.
On the outside of Free State of Jones, it looks like a film role perfectly suited for the Best Actor Academy Award winner and a time period and subject that touches on one of his earlier films, the underrated Steven Spielberg film Amistad. Ross even has the eye for capturing some period related pieces with his work on Seabiscuit, set during the depression, and Pleasantville, which sees the characters sent back to the 1950s. The cinematographer is no slouch, being Benoît Delhomme, the eye behind John Hillcoat’s Lawless and The Proposition as well as Anthony Minghella’s final feature, the ignored Breaking and Entering. These elements offered promise to a war that only has a few modern films made about it.
McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, a farmer recruited as a medic on the side of the Confederates during the Civil War. A man with deep convictions, Newt is very disillusioned with his role in the war, something further deepened when his teen nephew dies on the battlefield. Newt gathers his body up and deserts his army, heading home to Jones County and away from the conflict he knows to be a prize he and the other soldiers will never lay claim to. The movie’s narrative spends a lot of its establishing time setting up Newton Knight as a noble man willing to take on the every man’s fight and into the path of the rich man’s if needed.
The plight of all Jones County is put willingly onto Newt’s soldiers when he finds out that the Confederate army is taking the corn, cotton crops of all the farmers in the area, except the wealthy landowners. He puts himself in the crosshairs for one family of women which puts a warrant out for his arrest, causing him to travel into the woods to stay with some of the black slaves who had escaped their masters. Slowly, Newt starts to coax other Confederate deserters and begins to form a rebel faction to take back the county, their crops and their freedom.
As I said in the opening, Free State Of Jones opens with some promise. We get a grizzly look at the war with an unflinching look at the regimented attacks by either side. In the quieter moments, the camera pans over the carnage and blown apart bodies as Knight carries a wounded high-ranking soldier to the triage tent completely wash with the gore of battle. We then have the story play out with Newt and his nephew but once Newt leaves the war, Ross’s direction of the story starts to meander and the audience starts losing a grasp on what are the threads of this story to follow. Then Free State Of Jones throws a compelling subplot that takes place eighty-five years after the main story, involving a descendant of Newton Knight. It’s good but with the unfocused tone of the whole film, it just gets lost.
Matthew McConaughey seems to just live off his tried and true charismatic ways of delivering speeches as it feels like every ten minutes Newt Knight gives a rousing talk to the people who are so stirred by this, while we’re rolling our eyes by a certain point of the two-hour and twenty minute run time. This is a movie definitely made around the iconic actor that feels almost too saturated with how much we are supposed to love him that we cease to care entirely. We get it, he’s a hero that fought for many people’s freedoms but can we see it in a little less of a saintly light?
The whole feel of this movie is completely misguided in my opinion. McConaughey is depicted as the great white guardian angel that swoops into the emancipated slaves lives. Only after this involvement the ball really gets rolling on giving some sort of equality to their lives and it just feels too virtueless, especially as Newt spouts Bible teachings in his sermon like deliveries. A bobbled moral centre like this cuts a film like this down at the knees and, with no redeeming qualities coming from anywhere else, the final decision on this movie is made very clear.
Gary Ross is a director that only impressed me at the beginning of his career with Pleasantville, which was nominated for three Oscars. Everything else failed to capture my intention, as I always felt that his spark of ingenuity made way for a blandness the dulled out the Laura Hillenbrand book of Seabiscuit and made The Hunger Games a bit of a chore. Even Delhomme’s look to the film starts to peter out after some great wide shots and doesn’t ever reform. As much as I seem to be demonizing McConaughey a lot in this review, I think the helmer of this picture is what let it down.
There are much greater Civil War films have been produced over the years, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals being some of the best in the twenty years and who can forget Glory? Free State Of Jones is a movie that finds itself far from the conversation of those movies and really wants to add 12 Years A Slave to the scope of it, which ends up looking like an apology from a group of white producers. I never play the race card in any of these movie reviews but Free State leaves you no choice, you have to talk about it. Unfortunately for everyone involved with the movie, it just seems like the shining of a spotlight, trying to make apologies for an American atrocity. It ends up just being bad politics. I give this one a two and a half out of five.