There’s an intriguing, if not widely known, series of events at the center of the Civil War movie Free State of Jones. It’s one of those wartime curiosities that slips through the pages of American history, becoming a mere asterisk amid a larger story of battles won and lost.
In 1862, white Mississippian Newton Knight deserted the Confederate Army, after becoming disillusioned with its cause and outraged at how struggling, non-slave-owning white farmers were having their possessions plundered by the Confederacy to help feed and support the soldiers at the front.
But instead of just fleeing the South, he recruited other deserters and allied with runaway slaves who’d been living deep in the swamps, declared war against the Confederacy, and invented his own state — called Jones, as he was from Jones County — and enjoyed success in routing his far more powerful adversaries. Through it all, he fell in love with a black woman, Rachel.
That’s a movie that writes itself. Unfortunately, the movie that director/co-writer Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit) has written is well-made but struggles to be an all-encompassing, nearly 2 1/2-hour epic that gets mired in historical detail. The last third of the film, as it stuffs more and more in, feels less like a movie and more like cramming for a history exam at 2 a.m.
Matthew McConaughey brings the right amount of both indignation and weariness to the role of Newton Knight, and the rest of the cast — including Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) as Rachel and Mahershala Ali (House of Cards) as his brother in arms, Moses — is quite strong as well. The problem rests with how Ross and co-writer Leonard Hartman shape the narrative.
Instead of just focusing on Knight’s guerrilla war against the Confederacy and how the blacks and whites in his “army” put aside their anger and suspicion for a larger goal, Free State of Jones stretches into the post-war Reconstruction era and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It even flashes forward 85 years to a court case involving one of Knight’s descendants.
It makes for a fractured, frustrating film that squanders its potential.
At one point, as more Confederate deserters are joining Knight’s cause and everyone is drunk on the possibility of victory, there’s a party with the requisite roast pig. When Moses tries to get some, he’s yelled at by one of the soldiers for not knowing his place.
It’s the only moment in Free State of Jones that hints at what it must have been like in that dank swamp for these two groups trying to live and survive together.
Also, because this is Knight’s story, there’s little exploration of the mixed emotions the former slaves might have had about his ambitions.
Knight remains a controversial, polarizing figure in some quarters, and there have been many books published about his fascinating life and times. It’s too bad that the film that is going to introduce him to a wider audience isn’t half as compelling as his real story must have been.
Free State of Jones
☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell
Rated: R (brutal battle scenes, disturbing graphic images)
Running time: 139 min.