Monday 4 July 2016

Movie Review: Free State Of Jones (2016)

A fact-based Civil War drama, Free State Of Jones has an interesting story to tell, but spreads its material too thin and descends into a modular history lesson.

It's 1862, and with the war between the states raging, Confederate nurse Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) of Jones County, Mississippi, is getting increasingly disgruntled with the futility of it all. He views the conflict as rich Southern plantation owners protecting their way of life by sending poor farmers who don't own slaves to the slaughterhouse of the front lines. When Newton tries but fails to protect a relative from getting killed in battle, he deserts the army and leaves his wife Serena (Keri Russell) to flee deep into the swamps where escaped Negroes are also hiding out.

The Confederate army deploys increasingly heavy-handed taxation methods against the local population, breeding resentment. Newton organizes former slaves, including plantation housekeeper Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and serial escapee Moses (Mahershala Ali), as well as an increasing number of deserters, into a ragtag multi-racial anti-Confederate militia. They eventually seize control of a few counties and declare independence. But even as the war draws to an end, the troubles in the South are far from over.

Directed and written by Gary Ross, Free State Of Jones has good intentions to recount an interesting story, but gets caught between not enough focus and too much tutoring. At 2 hours and 20 minutes the film's running time is too long for the available material on Newton Knight. The first two thirds of the film labour at a slow pace to build up to the titular declaration, and then the narrative spirals off into plenty of on-screen captions describing historical events, and not enough dramatic narrative.

Despite the uneven tone, the film boasts impressive production values and recreates the behind-the-front-lines ugliness of warfare. With rich cinematography by BenoƮt Delhomme capturing a mystical landscape scarred by war, most of the action takes place away from the battles, as resentment builds among farmers conscripted to fight while wealthy landowners carry on their way of life. With the Confederate Army terrorizing its own populace with raids on civilian supplies, Newton Knight and other thoughtful men start to question the purpose of the slaughter.

The film also features a curious but not entirely successful side-story inter-cut with the adventures of Newton Knight. Set in a Mississippi courthouse 85 years after the Civil War, a descendant of Knight is on trial, accused of being a partially black man and therefore illegally married to a white woman. The parallels between the two men fighting in different corners of the same battle generations apart are intriguing, but the trial scenes are rudimentary at best, presented with little depth and hardly any context.

Matthew McConaughey is committed as Newton Knight and easily occupies the centre of the film. The rest of the cast members struggle to be noticed, with the script shortchanging all the secondary characters. There are attempts to flesh out Rachel and Moses, but neither Gugu Mbatha-Raw nor Mahershala Ali have enough to work with.

While its heart is in the right place, Free State Of Jones is less compelling as entertainment, but adequate as an earnest education piece.

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