At this point, the American Civil War has been mined for just about every cinematic angle. From Gone with the Wind to Lincoln, the cinematic language of the pitched battle between the Union and the Confederacy has long been established and, frankly, done to death. This kind of filmic legacy does Gary Ross’ Civil War melodrama Free State of Jones no favors – in recognizing the different types of Civil War movies that have existed, Free State of Jones tries to be all of them at one point or another. For that reason, and many more, it falls flat on its face.
Telling the true story of Newton Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey), Free State of Jones follows the Southern farmer as he deserts the Confederate army in 1863 to raise a guerilla force of his own to defend Jones County, Mississippi and its adjacent townships against the greedy Confederate forces taking their food and supplies to support the war effort. Along the way, he falls for a former slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and tries to establish a mixed-race community in Jones, despite deep racial divides on both sides and no support from the Union.
To Ross’ credit, the first act of the film contains some of the grittiest, most harrowing cinematic portrayals of old-time army combat seen in a long time. The film’s opening shots are chilling, with Confederate soldiers mindlessly marching over the bodies of their fellow men, and Ross isn’t afraid to linger on the image of, say, a man’s head completely imploded by a cannonball. Unfortunately, apart from a few painterly shots here or there, the film’s visuals appear on par with an HBO miniseries, boxing the film’s scale into a 16:9 frame that makes the Civil War feel inappropriately small.
The changing mood of Jones’ depiction of war is a symptom of the film’s larger tonal and pacing issues. We’re used to big war epics being over two hours long, making Jones feel like a film that pads out its runtime to gain the kind of scale a long runtime inherently implies. Tracking Knight’s exploits over the course of three years, screenwriters Ross, Jon Kilik, and Scott Stuber jarringly shoehorn in a Jim Crow-era subplot about Newton and Rachel’s descendant Davis Knight, on trial for miscegenation. The aim is to tie Knight’s bravery and actions to a legacy of racial progress, but the whole thing feels extraneous as minute-long scenes interrupt the action for no reason. Documentary-like stills and expository text guide us through each section of Knight’s narrative, holding the audience’s hands a little too much to feel organic.
On top of trying to be a Big, Important Film, Jones is also meant to be a showcase for McConaughey’s post-Oscar relevance as a dramatic actor, and he turns in a solid but unmemorable lead performance. His Knight falls victim to the white savior narratives we’ve seen far too many times in movies. At all turns, he is the perfect husband, father, friend, protector, and leader, the film somehow managing to make the whole of the Civil War and Reconstruction all about Newton Knight and his virtuous deeds. And it’s hard to ignore the troubling modern-day implications of Newt’s application of the N-word, which is well-intentioned as a show of solidarity but comes across as patronizing and overly simplistic, if not completely tone-deaf.
Free State of Jones is an odd film to release in the summer. It has Oscar-season pretensions of significance it doesn’t earn, but also lacks the bombast of a historical war epic like Saving Private Ryan. In trying to be a jack of all trades, Jones becomes a master of none, poorly imitating the scores of epic war films and Civil War dramas that came before it. The imitation comes right down to the score, which at one point lifts cues from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to give it the historical heft it so sorely desires. So soon after 12 Years a Slave, and coming right on the heels of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, Free State of Jones just feels out of place and too inelegant to work.