The laudable intentions of Free State of Jones, a fact-based Civil War saga, could well be considered beyond reproach, but the film’s execution, by producer/ director Gary Ross, is lamentable. Heavy-handed and self-important, this is a saga that sags, an epic of distressing emptiness. The film tries too hard to do too much and winds up accomplishing very little of what it set out to do, least of all entertain.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, a Confederate soldier so disgusted and disillusioned by war that he deserts the army and flees into the Mississippi swamps. With the help of fugitive slaves and like-minded residents, he establishes the “Free State of Jones” – an independent community inclusive of both blacks and whites.
Not surprisingly, this doesn’t sit well with certain factions of the Confederate Army, meaning that Newton and his compatriots will have to fight for their freedom. If Ross seemed an unlikely choice to direct The Hunger Games (2012) – he departed after the first film – he appears even less at home here. The action scenes are routine, and the Ross’ screenplay (Leonard Hartman receives a story credit) littered with clichés and one-dimensional characterization. The black characters are all noble and long-suffering and the white characters fare little better. That Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Newton’s black mistress and later wife) and Mahershala Ali (as the courageous slave Moses Washington) make any impression is due only to their sincere performances. Keri Russell plays Newton’s first wife, who also suffers nobly.
The ever-charismatic McConaughey gets to make a lot of speeches (which, in a better movie, would be Oscar bait), exhorting the masses, but he speaks in platitudes like a third-rate televangelist, mostly reiterating the same message over and over again – as if to pound it into the heads of the audience more than those he’s addressing.
Making matters much worse is the overall shoddiness of the presentation. The storyline is awkwardly paced and episodic, as if whole chunks had been removed or rearranged (at almost 140 minutes the film goes on forever). The cinematography is drab and the editing clumsy, including at least one blatantly egregious lapse in continuity: As Newton speaks to a group of slaves, the light behind McConaughey indicates late morning or early afternoon. When the camera cuts to the slaves, the light behind the actors indicates late afternoon. In an age of hi-tech digital effects, the appropriate level of light could easily be approximated at the touch of a button – or so one would think.
On the basis of its story, Free State of Jones should be uplifting and inspiring. Instead, it’s hugely depressing, mostly because of the ineptitude with which it’s been told here. Sad to say, this is one of the worst films of the season, and likely the entire year. !