Matthew McConaughey? More like, Matthew MEH-Conaughey! … [clears throat]
“Free State of Jones” is the true story of Confederate soldier-turned-rebel Newton Knight (McConaughey), who led an armed rebellion in Mississippi during the Civil War. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali and Keri Russell also star as Gary Ross writes and directs.
I love me a period piece film. I’m a history buff, so even the average film set in the past (say, “J. Edgar”) is entertaining for me to watch. So I was relatively looking forward to “Free State of Jones,” even though it appeared to be an action film masquerading as a wannabe Oscar flick. Turns out it’s neither of those things, and is instead a monotonous history lesson that will only leave you wanting more (and not in a good way).
The first act of this film is fine enough. It opens with two intense battle sequences and we are thrust into the brutality that was the Civil War. Men are mowed down on front lines, legs are amputated and bodies are tossed aside like rag dolls. It is graphic stuff and captured well by Ross, in his trademark shaky hand-cam.
However what I thought was the first hour of the film was actually only the first 30 minutes. Once McConaughey abandons his platoon and joins up with a band of runaway slaves in the swamps the movie begins to go off the rails. Well, no, going off the rails implies it was going too fast and too much was happening; it comes to a screeching halt before tipping over on its side.
The parts we want to see, what the trailer and the real life story promised us, are sprinkled throughout the next two hours (yeah, this thing is a very noticeable 139 minutes long), but in between are repetitive speeches and talks of harvest and ammunition supply runs. Then the War ends and I assumed the film would follow suit. But nope, there is still 40 minutes left. Plenty of time for some freed blacks to vote, the Klan to burn some buildings and McConaughey to saw some wood. Would those things be fine if handled properly? Sure. But it all just feels stitched together, like the film wanted to wrap up but Ross was like, “wait, no, let’s include this one more historical event!”
The film is well acted, that cannot be denied. McConaughey, long greasy hair and itchy beard and all, is solid as the leader of the rebels, even if after his third or fourth speech about equality I was getting tired of his ramblings. The supporting cast all turn in fine performances as well.
But I have to keep going back to the narrative and pacing, because they are damning. This film refuses to end and what starts as weighing turns into annoying which turns into tedious which eventually burns into “oh my god, movie, just end.”
“Free State of Jones” will make you scoff at the racist (and in retrospect, insanely stupid) laws and lifestyles of the old South, but you can just open Wikipedia for that; you don’t need to pay $10 to sit through a lecture. In fact, just Google the real story of Newton Knight. Sure you won’t have Matthew McConaughey’s soothing southern charm reading the words to you, but it’ll be twice as interesting and a fraction as long.
Critics Rating: 4/10