SYNOPSIS: Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey stars in this epic, untold true story of defiant Southern farmer, Newt Knight and his extraordinary armed rebellion against the Confederacy during the Civil War. Despite overwhelming odds, Knight banded together with other small farmers and local slaves and launched an uprising that led Jones County, Mississippi to secede from the Confederacy, creating a Free State of Jones.
I’m clearly not a history buff to begin with. Flunked most of my history exams, slept through most part of Spielberg’s Lincoln and has zero interest in the award-winning 12 Years A Slave. What makes me intrigued with Free State of Jones lies in the involvement of director and writer Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) and Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey.
McConaughey plays medic Newton Knight who is disgusted by the civil war that he deserts the army and escapes to the swamp. In the meantime, the Confederacy on the pretext of feeding the troops is going around legally looting civilians off their livestock and food. As a result, the kids and women are left starving while the men are conscript and sent off to fight the war. Knight clearly aware of the sufferings decide to form his own ragtag army of escaped slaves and deserters to stand against the local Confederate command.
It’s actually noble of Ross to adapt a relatively unknown heroic story to the big screen but it’s kind of unfortunate as the end effort seems laborious and forced. Rather than making a straight-out action-packed war drama for the masses, Ross’ clunky screenplay attempts to bring out more out of Knight. There’s even a forgettable subplot that is set 85 years later where one of Knight’s descendants is being charged in court for his mixed-raced lineage. You see, Newton Knight despite being all religious, righteous and all married a former slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) even though he already has his a lawful wife, Serena (Keri Russell). You can consider Knight to be way ahead of his times for that.
Knight’s unconventional lifestyle aside, Ross even went on to tackle issues liked the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and their atrocities; the freed blacks being forced to work in plantations and their involvement in political activities. There’s so much to tell in Ross’ loose adaptation that he needs a mini-series to truly justify for it. Sadly, the entire movie lacks a certain momentum to move things along. After a thrilling big fight against the Confederate command, the pacing starts to slow to a crawl not that the movie is running at full speed anyway. A supposedly compelling civil war drama liked Free State of Jones becomes draggy and heavy-handed under Ross’ direction.
With long beard and unkempt facial hair, Matthew McConaughey who appears in every scene is genuinely charismatic and absorbing as Newton Knight. Other well-acted performances include Mahershala Ali (Luke Cage) playing a former slave and Thomas Francis Murphy as the villainous Commander. With the exception of a few brief war sequences in the beginning, production values on the whole looks surprisingly cheap for a major Hollywood title.
Free State of Jones for sure is not a popcorn movie liked Mel Gibson’s The Patriot nor as captivating as The Revenant. It just sits somewhere in-between despite Ross’ best intention to make a movie with a meaningful message. It simply never comes across as inspiring in fact it’s just plain dull, slow and probably a trip to the library yields you more knowledge of America history.
The Free State Of Jones is an 18 minutes history lesson on the real Newt Knight, his descendants and interviews with historians in present time Jones County.
Visual is rich and detailed, colours are fantastic looking. More impressive is the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio that comes with furious sounding debris effects, loud gunshots and cannonballs though it definitely doesn’t affect the delivery of spoken dialogue
DVD RATING :
Review by Linus Tee