Review: The Free State of Jones

The Free State of Jones
6 10
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PLOT: The story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a pro-Union Southerner who deserts the Confederate Army during the Civil War and leads an armed rebellion in Jones County, consisting of farmers and runaway slaves.

REVIEW: It’s relatively rare these days for big star-driven, adult-oriented films to open outside the narrow fourth quarter Oscar corridor. So rare that when a movie does open at another time of the year, there’s inevitably some chatter about the film being “not good enough for awards” which may be true, but since when does every movie made with an over-30 audience in mind have to be an absolute slam-dunk?

free state of jones matthew mcconaughey

To be sure, THE FREE STATE OF JONES isn’t going to win anybody a gold statue. It’s far too low-key for that, and if the movie has a big failing it’s that under Gary Ross’s old-fashioned direction, it isn’t full-blooded or exciting enough to catch-on with the mainstream, nor is it sophisticated or well-crafted enough to impress the critics. Yet, as per the studio STX’s adult-oriented mandate, it does provide mature audiences with a thoughtful, mature piece of popcorn entertainment for themselves – with this being the type of period drama that would have felt like a commercial no-brainer fifteen or twenty years ago.

The story of Newton Knight is one that seems tailor-made for the movies, or at least the version of it we’re being told here is. In Ross’s film, Knight is portrayed as a thoughtful Confederate soldier, who bristles at his lot risking his neck for the south while slave-owners are exempt. Even still, it takes the death of his teenaged nephew in battle to really wake him up, with him returning to his weary wife (Keri Russell) to bury his kin, and being shocked by the way confederate soldiers are starving dirt-poor farmers by confiscating all their crops.

free state of jones matthew mcconaughey

After a violent encounter with some soldiers, Knight falls in with some runaway slaves (led by House of Cards’s Mahershala Ali) which opens his eyes even more to the bigotry of the south, leading him to become (as depicted here) a kind of Robin Hood-esque figure, who takes in runaway slaves, farmers and deserters and teaches them to fight in a pro-Union militia.

In the lead, McConaughey is believably heroic, almost to a fault, with his Knight living up to his family name as his gently romances a Creole slave (the gorgeous and always welcome Gugu Mbawtha-Raw) after his wife leaves. Sporting scraggly hair, rotten teeth and an unkempt beard, the McConaughey on display here fits in well with his new, character-actor image. It’s amazing how quickly this former rom-com guy has become one of our top stars, and if FREE STATE OF JONES never quite becomes A-level entertainment, it’s not for lack of McConaughey putting his all into it.

The blame for this can probably be assigned to Ross, with this having the same kind of slow-going approach his SEABISCUIT and even his first HUNGER GAMES did. At times it feels a bit like a cable film put on the big screen rather than a big-screen period epic, which is reinforced by his decision to shoot in 1:85:1. The action and battle sequences are shot with realism in-mind, meaning lots of gore shown in a straightforward way. There are no real moments of bravura for Knight, save for one bit where he strangles an enemy with a belt.

However, Ross does one thing that’s quite interesting, which is to occasionally pause the action to skip ahead to the late 1940s, where one of Knight’s ancestors found himself on trial for miscegenation, where his marriage to a white woman was decreed unlawful due to the fact that me might be around 1/8th black. This is a real case from the era, and while juxtaposing the ancestor’s decision to hold firm to his belief to his great-grandfather’s battles with the Confederates (and later – the Klan) doesn’t make for the smoothest transition it’s nonetheless an interesting choice in a movie that’s otherwise a little static.

Despite being kind of slow-going and over-long (at 139 minutes) FREE STATE OF JONES is nevertheless a pretty good movie and worth checking-out if you need a break from big summer tent pole movies. It’s not perfect but it’s always watchable and mostly intriguing.

Source: JoBlo.com



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