FILM REVIEW – FREE STATE OF JONES. With Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry. Written and directed by Gary Ross. Rated R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images. 139 minutes.
Movies about the American Civil War tend to romanticize the South, which was supposedly fighting for “honor” and “state’s rights” and other such things. It’s beyond the scope of a film review to explain why such a dishonest and distorted image has long held sway, but modern films–notably the remarkable “12 Years a Slave” (2013)–have provided long overdue balance. Now comes FREE STATE OF JONES, which tells the little-known story of how a group of poor white farmers and freed black slaves engaged in open rebellion against the Confederate authorities in Mississippi.
Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is working as a medic, risking life and limb to pull injured Southern soldiers off the battlefield where they might still die, as treating wounded officers was given priority. When he returns home with the body of a young kinsman he failed to save, he decides he will not go back. Instead, he will take a stand against the Confederate forces who are commandeering the crops and livestock of local farmers, while protecting the interests of the wealthy landowners.
Eventually he must abandon his wife Serena (Keri Russell) and young child to hide in the inaccessible swamps with some runaway slaves. There he meets Moses (Mahershala Ali), and comes to understand that the poor whites have more in common with the oppressed slaves than either has with their oppressors. Soon he is leading a revolt against the Confederacy, unclear if that means they’re supporting the Union, but sure they have a common enemy.
Writer-director Gary Ross has had an interesting career, including making “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit,” faltering a bit when he tried to wrangle the first “Hunger Games” film, but otherwise tackling unconventional stories in a compelling fashion. His work here is riveting, getting away from him only when he tries to compress too much post-Civil War history into a story which focuses mostly on the war years.
McConaughey’s powerful performance as the driven Knight is the thread that holds it all together. At turns angry, grimly calm, and warmly humane, he makes it understandable why poor farmers would choose to risk their lives and stand with him. Ali offers up the real honor of the South as Moses, an escaped slave who refuses to submit. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is another standout, as Rachel, a “house slave” who first ministers to Knight’s sick child, and then becomes Knight’s most important partner.
With its epic sweep and powerful performances shedding light on a little-known chapter of American history, this would have seemed like prime Oscar bait for an autumn release. Instead, its being thrown away now, where it will not likely last long in theaters. By all means see “Free State Of Jones” while you can. It’s a timely reminder of how the times and issues may change, but the battle goes on.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.