In 2014, The McConaissance was soaring high. Matthew McConaughey was soaring high with a string of hits – Magic Mike, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, Mud, True Detective, and Interstellar. It was the hot streak of all hot streaks.
What card was the man with the hot hand going to draw next? Apparently, Free State Jones – the true story of a Confederate medic who goes AWOL and starts an armed rebellion.
McConaughey stars as Mississippi farmer Newton Knight. After his “kin” dies in battle, he leaves the Confederacy and heads back to his home in Jones County. After being injured by a hound, Knight looks for help and shelter in the swamps with a house negro named Rachel and a small group of runaway slaves.
Knight decides to band together with other poor farmers and slaves to protect Jones County rebel against the Confederacy.
The first impression from Free State Jones is that it would’ve been a lot more interesting as a documentary. The film covers a time period between 1862 and 1876. It’s an important time in the nation’s history, but also a lot of time to cover in a single film. Because of how many years are covered, the story never spends enough time with any characters, not named Newton, for you to care about their issues.
Newton Knight’s battle against the 1% in the 1860’s is an interesting tale. Despite what’s depicted in the trailers, he’s not running through the south, freeing slaves. He’s actually doing more harm than good. When Newt gets hurt, he goes to the swamp where the slaves hide and turns it into his base camp. They even have a big party and the slaves who helped him still aren’t treated as equal. Newton lights fire to a slave owner’s cotton, not because it was the right thing to do, but because he harmed the woman he cared about. Although Newton is framed as a hero for the film’s narrative, he’s a vengeful crazy person who doesn’t think about anyone other than himself most of the time.
Newton Knight is a lot more Robin Hood than he is Nat Turner.
As if telling a story over 15 years isn’t hard enough to track, the movie jumps 85 years ahead to a courtroom drama. The story is making a connection between the man in the courtroom and Newton Knight. It should be compelling, but those characters might as well be extras on one of the farms. None of the court stuff matters since the film spends little time with the courtroom characters and even less time discussing Newton’s views on race relations.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw makes an appearance as Rachel. She should be a central figure in Newton’s story, but she’s not given much to do besides smile, cry, and look pretty. Hunger Games alum Mahershala Ali plays the most interesting character, Moses – a runaway slave looking to reunite with his wife and son. The story desperately needed more character arcs like Moses’.
McConaughey’s performance is fine and forgettable. He spends most of the movie looking like he needs a shower as he does a Bernie Sanders impersonation railing about the 1%.
When the film’s not jumping 85 years into the future, it jumps a few years or months with zero explanation. There’s a scene with the group held up in Ellisville what’s happening isn’t explained. A few title cards appear that give place and time, but that’s it. Even Newton’s relationships are loosely defined. It’s really not clear if Serena (Keri Russell) is Newton’s sister…wife…cousin.
There are a few moments when the story offers a different perspective on the slavery. It gets into what it was like post-Emancipation and how difficult it was for “free men”. It mentions the laws put in place to keep people enslaved, voting issues, and what life was like for non plantation owners. Like most of the film, the story never spends enough time to make those perspectives payoff.
The most unnecessary part of the film is violence and gore that shows up periodically. Those scenes feel like slavery porn and doesn’t add much to the narrative unfolding onscreen.
Newton Knight’s story isn’t a bad one; Free State Jones is the worst vehicle to tell this story. The film should be packed with emotion and it’s not. It’s boring and poorly edited. The editing and jump cuts never allow for the story to really get going. Instead of a history lesson, audiences are treated to a messy story that’s impossible to track. There’s tons of good information flowing through the story that could’ve been told in a long form documentary. Instead of a movie that’s 30 minutes too long starring Matthew McConaughey, Free State Jones would’ve made an interesting two part documentary narrated by Matthew McCanaughey. Having Matthew McConaughey narrate as Newton Knight would’ve been even better.