Sunday 21 August 2016

Film Review: Free State of Jones

Creaky pacing and an overlong final act unravel an otherwise haunting and daring untold tale from the American Civil War.

Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones is the film equivalent of those mouldy old history textbooks that lurk at the back of schoolroom closets; buried deep in those dusty dog-earned pages are captivating tales of heroic real-life figures and fascinating, horrifying world-changing events. But, also filling those pages are acres and acres of long-winded, soporific text that’d put even the most troubled amnesiac to sleep.

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.

Unfortunately, nothing comes close to eclipsing the arresting opening 15 minutes; from here the film meanders through various subplots, the best of which sees Newton’s band of rebels aping Robin Hood by raiding enemy caravans. However, the third act just rolls on and on and on, much like a balding and bespectacled teacher determined to plough through every bullet point on the syllabus. The use of archival photos and title cards slow the pace down further still, giving the final third an almost documentarian vibe.

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

This review was originally published over at Hooked on Film, a Perth based website where you can find even more new release movie reviews, features, interviews and insight. Click here to check it out. 


  1. Nice review! I so wanted to see this because of Matthew McConaughey, but didn't quite know what to make of the trailer. It seemed like the story would struggle to make a point out of his character's revolution.

    1. Does this mean that the McConaissance is over? Dun dun dunnn!



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