Creaky pacing and an overlong final act unravel an otherwise haunting and daring untold tale from the American Civil War.
The film concerns itself with a largely untold true story from the American Civil War of a disillusioned Confederate field doctor, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), who flees the frontlines following a crushing defeat against the Union. Under the thumb of a corrupt local government, Newton assembles a ragtag group of fellow deserters and runaway slaves; striking from a dank swamp deep in the Mississippi, Newton’s rebel soldiers lead an uprising against the Confederacy – with the aim of declaring themselves a free and independent state following the war.
McConaughey does his utmost to bring both gravitas and feeling to the weighty material; however, he faces an uphill battle concerning the script. 60% of his scenes are either rousing speeches or sombre eulogies, with the other 40% being unintelligible mumbles swimming in his trademark Southern drawl. It’s easy to side with Newton’s noble cause, but hard to feel for him as anything other than a crude sketch that stepped out of the aforementioned history book.
Spanning several years, Free State of Jones commits to charting all of the noteworthy milestones in Newton’s fight against the Confederacy. This means that the other people around him fall by wayside; his wife, Serena (Keri Russell), disappears for the vast majority of the film without a second thought whereas we’re only told about Newton’s flourishing feelings for Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), rather than seeing them develop naturally for ourselves. Mahershala Ali’s former slave Moses could’ve been a compelling second-in-command, but he’s underutilised and too often forgotten about during the second act.
The cast, crew and all involved have the noblest of intentions; they’ve clearly poured their heart and soul into delivering a film that showcases the moral complexities of war as well as the harsh truths of race relations in the wake of the Civil War and in the proceeding century. There are some astoundingly powerful character moments that pack a hefty punch, as well as committed, nuanced performances from the sprawling ensemble cast – Mbatha-Raw and Ali are notable standouts.
However, its stilted management of an otherwise absorbing, little known story is too detrimental to ignore.
The Verdict: 5/10
With a narrower focus and a tighter edit, maybe it’d be a different story – but unfortunately Free State of Jones too closely resembles one of those movies you’re forced to watch in high-school history class to be truly captivating.
Free State of Jones is in cinemas across Australia from August 25th